It’s time for the second season to officially begin, and it is only fitting that with the Big Ten tournament starting that Greg Gard drops the interim tag and officially becomes the new head coach at Wisconsin Gard will have to wait and see who he will go up against in his “official” head coaching debut, as Wisconsin will face the winner of the Nebraska this evening.
If Wisconsin takes care of business Thursday, the road to defending its tournament crown will only get more difficult with a third matchup against No.18 Maryland in the quarterfinals and, potentially, another crack at No.2 Michigan State in the semifinals.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives to win a fourth Big Ten tournament championship.
Lay Up: Can Wisconsin get production from its bench?
After registering 23 bench points in the win against Iowa, the bench for Wisconsin has only averaged 6.3 points over the last three games. In fact, over the last five games, Wisconsin’s bench has only been able to reach double figures in scoring once (Minnesota, 10 points), a reason UW finished conference play averaging 10.3 points a game off the bench.
If Wisconsin wants to have a prolonged stay in Indianapolis, the bench has to deliver more than just minutes for Wisconsin. The bench has been able to contribute in ways outside of scoring, as the top five players off the bench have combined for 201 rebounds, Khalil Iverson ranks fourth on the team in steals (11) and Iverson and Charlie Thomas have combined for 25 blocks.
In particular, if Wisconsin wants to be fresh for Friday if they get past Thursday, the bench needs to play well and make sure Wisconsin’s rhythm on both ends of the court doesn’t get disjointed. Being able to keep Nebraska at bay and be able to build a double-digit lead will be important, which hopefully can keep the starters fresh for future games.
Jordan Hill and Iverson have been the two most consistent scorers for Wisconsin this year off the bench, as each have scored 83 points this season. Hill has two games in double figures while Iverson, Thomas, and Alex Illikainen all have one. Of the five rotation players off of Wisconsin’s bench, only Thomas (36.8 percent) isn’t shooting above 40 percent from the field.
However, only Hill and Iverson have routinely chipped in since the Iowa game. Illikainen hasn’t scored in the last four games and Thomas hasn’t in the last three. Wisconsin might be able to get away with low scoring from its bench on Thursday, but if the group can’t log heavier, more productive minutes, it could mean an early exit for Wisconsin.
Mid-Range Jumper: Getting back to playing strong defense
Wisconsin finished the regular season allowing 64.4 points a game, which was second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State. You wouldn’t know if you watched Wisconsin give up a season-high 91 points against Purdue on Sunday, as the Boilermakers hurt Wisconsin from the paint, the free throw line and the perimeter.
Outside of the Purdue game, Wisconsin has been good defensively and consistently held its conference opponents below its scoring average. But if Wisconsin doesn’t make the corrections it needs to on defense, especially with some talented offenses on its side of the bracket, it could foreshadow a long evening.
Assuming UW advances to the quarterfinals, the Badgers will face a Maryland team that finished the regular season averaging 75.9 points a game, which ranked fifth in the conference. In the two meetings this year, Wisconsin held the Terrapins to a 60 point average. Get past Maryland, Wisconsin could see a Michigan State team that averaged 80.7 points.
The commonality between Maryland and Michigan State is both teams have shown they can shoot the ball efficiently. Maryland finished second in the conference at 48.9 percent and Michigan State was right behind at 48.8 percent. In particular, the Spartans have been hitting a rhythm offensively down the stretch, shooting 53.5 percent from the field on an average of 60.3 shot attempts in their last six games.
In the five games prior to Wisconsin allowing Purdue to shoot a season-high 62.2 percent from the field, Wisconsin held opponents to 40 percent from the field. One way Wisconsin’s defense can disrupt either Maryland or Michigan State’s offensive rhythm is by continuing to create turnovers. The Badgers have forced their last 12 opponent into double-digit turnovers and average 12.1 turnovers forced per game. With two high scoring offenses, Wisconsin will need to rely on that part of its game to generate some extra opportunities that will be critical to convert on.
3-Pointer: Can Wisconsin strike a balance on offense?
It’s amazing how a couple 3-pointers can open up so many options for Wisconsin’s offense, particularly in the paint. When Wisconsin has created an inside-outside game this season, they’ve shown to be difficult to stop, as the space it creates has allowed the Badgers to get Ethan Happ going in the low post, Bronson Koenig and the guards open looks from 3-point range and driving lanes to create contact and get to the free throw line.
Wisconsin is coming off the game against Purdue where the Badgers shot 44.8 percent from the perimeter (13-for-29). It’s the fifth time in conference play UW made at least 10 3-pointers and the second time in the last four games, but both Maryland and Michigan State don’t allow its opponents many open looks from behind the arc. Maryland holds teams to 31.7 percent and Michigan State is even better at 30.6 percent, putting them both in the top five in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal defense.
In Wisconsin’s two regular season matchups against Maryland and Michigan State, Wisconsin shot 40.4 percent (19-for-47) against the Terrapins and 35.2 percent (12-for-34) against the Spartans.
Since it’s unlikely Wisconsin will hit every 3-pointer it takes, the Badgers need to find a way to create second-chance opportunities for themselves, forcing their opponents to defend longer and create another possession for points. Wisconsin averages 11.5 offensive rebounds a game but have reached double digits in the category once in the last five games. Wisconsin will need to find a way to get back on track in the Big Ten tournament in order to keep possessions alive and to make sure that teams can’t get points in transition.
Maryland allows its opponent to average 11.1 offensive rebounds a game compared to the 9.4 offensive rebounds the Spartans allow. In the two regular season games against Maryland and Michigan State, Wisconsin averaged 12.5 points off of second-chance opportunities, not to mention the opportunities could lead to points in the paint. In the two regular season matchups against both Maryland and Michigan State, Wisconsin averaged 22 points in the paint.