For the 18th consecutive year Wisconsin has earned the right to compete in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Sporting a No.7 seed in the East Region in this year’s edition, the Badgers prepare to play No.10 Pittsburgh tomorrow evening at the Scottrade Center.
There were times through the first three months of the season where Wisconsin seemed bound for the N.I.T. after spending the first 18 games of the year playing inconsistent, uncharacteristic basketball. Over time, however, new head coach Greg Gard was able to extract the most out of this team, and the program closed the season winning 11 of its final 14 games.
Of UW’s 20 wins in the regular season, three came over the other No.10 seeds in the N.C.A.A. field, beating VCU in New York, Syracuse on the road and Temple at home by 8.3 points per game.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (20-12, 12-6) as it strives to win its first-round matchup against Pittsburgh (21-11, 9-9), giving UW nine opening-round wins in the last 10 years.
Lay Up: Bouncing back from an ugly performance
It was a bad performance all around for Wisconsin against Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament last week, a performance that needs to be improved upon if Wisconsin wants to avoid an early exit. In particular, Wisconsin needs to have Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes be more productive offensively.
The two combined to shoot 5-for-27 (18.5 percent) from the field in the loss to the Cornhuskers. There have been instances this year where either Koenig or Hayes had a poor game shooting the ball and Wisconsin found a way to overcome it. But when both struggle offensively, the Badgers have rarely succeeded in developing a consistent offense.
Despite Koenig’s shot not falling as of late, he has done well of distributing the ball to one of his teammates. Over the last five games Koenig has averaged four assists a contest and averaged 1.6 assists this year. If Koenig can continue finding the open man, he will be able to open up opportunities for his teammates and for himself, especially from 3-point range. Although he has struggled from three over the last two games (20 percent shooting), Koenig was 9-for-15 in the three games previous against Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.
If Koenig can find his shooting touch, Pittsburgh won’t be able to crowd Hayes and the paint, as the Panthers allowed only 29.4 points in the paint during ACC play.
Mid-Range Jumper: Can Wisconsin keep Pittsburgh off the glass?
Out-rebounded 11 times during Big Ten play by an average of 6.5 rebounds, Wisconsin will have a challenge of keeping the Panthers off the glass. Pittsburgh averaged 36.4 rebounds a game during conference play and 38.2 rebounds on the season. Even though UW was undersized against a lot of Big Ten teams, UW held its own by holding Big Ten opponents to 31.7 rebounds a contest, which ranked fourth in the conference.
One of Pittsburgh’s biggest strengths is attacking the offensive glass. Averaging 13.1 during ACC play, five different Panthers have registered at least 40 offensive rebounds this season, with Michael Young leading the team with 75 (2.34 offensive rebounds a game). Wisconsin will also need to be careful of former Badgers target Sheldon Jeter, who’s second on the team in offensive rebounds (1.59 per game). With their ability to rebound and generate extra possessions, the Panthers shot 42.9 percent from the field and averaged 13.1 second-chance points during ACC play.
Wisconsin was able to limit opponents to 9.1 offensive rebounds during Big Ten play and won’t be dominated in height with Pitt not rotating in a player that’s over 6-10. That should be able to give Wisconsin a chance to successfully box out on shots (UW held teams to 7.7 second-chance points this season), but it might be a group effort to slow down Young, who is shooting 53.9 percent from the field.
Not only is Pittsburgh strong in the interior, the Panthers don’t turn the ball over. Pitt’s 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio during ACC play ranked third in the conference.
3-Pointer: Taking what Pittsburgh gives them on offense
Over the last three halves, Wisconsin has shot a combined 30.5 percent from the field and made double-digit field goals once (10 in the second half against Purdue). Simply put, Wisconsin has to shoot the ball much better. The good news is that despite the recent struggles on offense, the Badgers are going against a Panthers team that allowed teams to shoot 47 percent from the field in ACC play (14th out of 15 teams). Pitt also allowed teams to shoot 39.2 percent from 3-point range during ACC play.
Although Wisconsin’s 3-point shots haven’t been falling, UW still finished fourth in the Big Ten at 38 percent shooting from the perimeter, numbers that went up as the season progressed and UW utilized better spacing, ball movement and establishing the post.
If Wisconsin wants to be able to strike that balance on offense, Vitto Brown could be an x-factor with his perimeter shot. Over the last six games, Brown has made at least one three and has made at least two the last four games. In the last six games, 28 of Brown’s 49 shots have come from 3-point range.
With Brown shooting 50 percent from three over the last six games, the junior has helped Wisconsin either stay in the game or build an early lead. Problem is Brown hasn’t been able to sustain success in the second half. In UW’s last two losses, Brown has averaged 11 points and has shot 88.8 percent (8-for-9) from the field in the first half but has scored only three points on 0-for-5 shooting in the second half.
Not only will Wisconsin have to take when the defense gives, the Badgers have to be able to battle on the block in order to generate extra possessions. Pitt allowed 8.4 offensive rebounds during ACC play and UW averaged 9.2 offensive rebounds in Big Ten play, so UW will have chances to get some extra offense.