Currently enjoying its first three game winning streak of the season, Wisconsin continues to show improvement under interim head coach Greg Gard. One thing that is starting to become clear since Gard took over in December is that UW has found ways to win the close games. On its three game win streak, UW has won by an average of 3.33 points. It shouldn’t be a surprise the margin has been so thin, as two of the wins have come over top 20 teams.
Heading to Champaign Sunday to take on Illinois, the Badgers will take on an Illini program that has lost three of their last four and eight straight to Wisconsin, including the last three at home. Illinois’ most recent setback was a five-point overtime loss to Ohio State.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) in order to pick up a win against Illinois (10-11, 2-6).
Lay up: Taking care of the basketball
While Wisconsin’s inconsistent shooting struggles were expected this season, it’s a little surprising to see the Badgers struggle taking care of the basketball, especially for a program that has been lauded in the past for not beating themselves with turnovers.
Wisconsin hasn’t shown the same kind of consistency as in past years, turning the ball over 11.3 times per game to put them in a tie for sixth in the Big Ten. UW hasn’t averaged double-digit turnovers for a season since committing 10 per game in 2008-09.
In the six previous seasons, Wisconsin has finished in the top four nationally in turnovers per game, including leading the nation four times (2009-10, 10-11, 13-14 and 14-15).
Through eight Big Ten games, Wisconsin has committed 83 turnovers and at least 10 turnovers four times, including the last two games. The Badgers will need to be ready for an Illinois defense that forces 13.3 turnovers and have created 105 turnovers in Big Ten play. While they don’t come up with many steals (its 5.3 steals ranks 10th in the league), Illinois ranks second in the conference posting a plus 3.1 turnover margin and has done a good job of capitalizing on mistakes, averaging 12.8 points off of turnovers and 6.2 points off fast break opportunities.
The communication has been better by Wisconsin, which has resulted in fewer careless miscues, but the Badgers are still allowing 15.3 points off their turnovers in conference play. On Tuesday, Indiana scored 21 points off a season-high 16 UW turnovers.
Nigel Hayes (47 turnovers) and Ethan Happ (43 turnovers) will have to be stronger with the ball, as the two committed half of Wisconsin’s 16 turnovers against Indiana. If Wisconsin is going to continue to find ways of getting the basketball down low to either player, they will have to be stronger with the ball when they receive the entry pass or when they get the rebound.
Mid-range jumper: Defending Malcolm Hill
Illinois has struggled to stay healthy this year. Senior Tracy Abrams is out with an ACL injury and second-leading scorer Kendrick Nunn (17.9 ppg) is finally back in the starting lineup after missing six games. With Illinois not being at full health for most of the season, it has forced Hill to shoulder a big portion of the offense’s responsibilities.
Hill ranks third in the conference with 18.3 points on 43.7 percent shooting from the field on an average of 13.2 field goal attempts. Hill has scored in double figures in every game this season, has registered eight 20-point games and two games of at least 30 points.
If Wisconsin isn’t careful on defense, Hill could find a way to fill the stat sheet. The UW backcourt will need to do a better job of making sure Hill can’t create the space like Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell did. Nunn being back in the lineup is another weapon Hill can rely on to help establish Illinois offense, which is averaging 73.7 points a game. Nunn led Illinois in scoring (24 points on 7-for-15) against Ohio State.
If Wisconsin is going to find success defending Hill, they will to need to prevent him from driving to the hoop and force him to settle for perimeter shots. Hill has attempted 22 3-point field goal attempts and shooting just 27 percent. Purdue was the only game where Hill has hit multiple three’s in Big Ten play.
Hayes easily could defend Hill on Sunday night, as the junior has shown his defensive improvements by being tied with Zak Showalter with 24 steals and registering a steal in 11 straight games.
Illinois could try and create more favorable matchups for Hill by utilizing ball screens, so both Showalter and Bronson Koenig will need to be embrace the challenge. Showalter’s defense has been up and down this season, as he’s fouled out four times and committed four fouls in five games. Hill averages 8.1 free throw attempts a game.
Wisconsin will need to communicate through screens and do a good job of hedging. If UW does that, it could help force Hill into another poor shooting performance after he scored 12 points on 3-for-14 shooting against Ohio State.
3-pointer: Can Wisconsin make a living in the paint?
Registering one of its better shooting games of the season against Indiana, the Badgers shot 52.1 percent (25-for-48) from the field in the three-point overtime win, marking the second time Wisconsin has shot above 50 percent from the field in Big Ten play. Wisconsin was able to consistently get high percentage shots thanks to the Badgers getting the basketball inside to Hayes and Happ, who combined to shoot 17-for-27 (62.9 percent) from the field and score 56 of the team’s 82 points. UW finished with 36 points in the paint – its highest in Big Ten play - and the eighth game of scoring at least 30 points in the paint.
While preventing its last two opponents from breaking 30 points in the paint, Illinois still allows an average of 33.5 points a game in the lane. In total Illinois has allowed 268 points in the paint during Big Ten play, which breaks down to 43.1 percent of its opponent’s points. In Illinois’ 25-point loss at Michigan State Jan.8, the Spartans scored 50 of their 79 points in the paint. With Wisconsin averaging 25.7 points in the paint in conference play, it would be surprising not to see Gard run his offense through the post, especially since UW shot over 50 percent in each half against Indiana employing that philosophy.
Since the Big Ten opener against Purdue, Happ has shown to be a lot more comfortable around the basket and has developed a couple of nice post moves in order to get a high quality shot. Since the loss to Purdue, Happ hasn’t shot lower than 42 percent from the field and is shooting 61.7 percent (42-for-68) on 9.7 shot attempts over the last seven games.
While Hayes leads Wisconsin in free throw attempts at 170, Happ has started to become more of a frequent visitor because of his comfort on the block. Over the first four Big Ten games Happ attempted a combined six free throws and didn’t attempt any in two games. Over the last four games, the fewest free throws Happ has attempted was six against Northwestern. In that span he’s averaging 10.2 attempts from the free throw line. If Happ can keep that trend alive against Illinois, it will only help himself and the rest of Wisconsin’s frontcourt players in the paint.