The Wisconsin-Pittsburgh game lived up to its billing as a tough, physical grind. Although it was expected to be a low-scoring game, no one expected that the two teams would combine to shoot 35-for-101 (34.6 percent) from the field and neither would crack 50 points.
Luckily for Wisconsin, the Badgers were able to find a way to advance to take on No.2-seed Xavier in the second round. Not only is Xavier more physical than Pittsburgh, the Musketeers averaged a Big East-best 80.7 points a game during conference play. Simply put, Wisconsin needs to find its offense in order to advance to the Sweet 16.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (21-12, 12-6) as it strives to advance over Xavier (28-5, 14-4) in the first meeting between the two teams since the 2009 N.C.A.A. tournament.
Lay Up: Can Wisconsin get production from its bench?
Wisconsin’s bench played a combined 30 minutes in the win over Pittsburgh, but Jordan Hill played 17 of them. Other than Charlie Thomas’ two points, Wisconsin’s bench didn’t score, marking the third straight game the bench has contributed single-digit points. There was a lot of zeroes across the box score for Wisconsin’s bench, as the reserves was only able to contribute five rebounds.
Over the last nine games, Wisconsin’s bench has scored 10+ points twice, putting UW in a precarious situation with Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes struggling with their shots. Over the last two games, Koenig has gone 4-for-20 (20 percent) from the field and Hayes has shot 5-for-32 (15.6 percent).
With those two struggling and without the bench, the offense has started to rely more on Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown to provide the scoring punch. Brown has scored in double figures the past two games and four of the last five game, while Happ has scored double figures over the last five straight games while shooting 54.3 percent (25-for-46) from the field.
If Koenig and Hayes can’t break from their funk, the Badgers will need the multiple players off the bench to score, rebound or dive on the floor for loose balls to create opportunities, as it has been too often lately where only one bench player has produced. Over the last five games Wisconsin’s bench has contributed only 23 points on 9-for-29 (31 percent) shooting from the field.
Mid-Range Jumper: Re-Establishing the three
After shooting 13-for-29 (44.8 percent) in the loss to Purdue, Wisconsin’s offense has struggle from 3-point range over the last two games. Against Nebraska and Pittsburgh, Wisconsin shot 20 percent (4-for-20) and 21.1 (4-for-19) from the perimeter, respectively.
In order to beat Xavier, the Badgers will need to find a way to knock down the 3-point shot in order to help break Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone. The gaps in the zone will provide open opportunities for Wisconsin’s offense, so the Badgers will need to hit some early to balance out defense. UW will need something from Koenig, who is 3-for-17 from 3-point range after shooting 50 percent from the perimeter the previous three games prior to that.
With Koenig struggling as of late, Brown has been able to step up by averaging three 3-pointers over the last five games on an average of five attempts. Xavier will have to pay attention when the junior receives the ball out on the perimeter, as Brown is 6-for-8 from 3-point range this postseason.
Xavier held teams to 32.7 percent from three in Big East play and limited Weber State to 19 percent (4-for-21) in its 18-point first-round win.
Even if Wisconsin can hit some shots from the perimeter, the Badgers will have to be stronger finishing around the rim, as there have been instances the last two games of leaving points on the floor due to missed layups. It’s part of the reason why Wisconsin posted first-half scoring droughts of 3:46, 5:12 and 3:58 against Pitt.
Those type of scoring slumps will be difficult to overcome against a talented Xavier squad with its high-scoring offense and a defense holding team to only 41.5 percent shooting.
3-Pointer: Containing Xavier’s offense
As just mentioned above, Xavier’s offense is right up there with the likes of Indiana, Michigan State and Maryland in terms of productivity. The Musketeers have shown the ability to score efficiently and with balance, as four players average double figures and all shoot at least 40 percent from the field.
Trevon Bluiett leads Xavier in scoring (15.3 points per game) and 3-point field goal percentage (39.7 percent), but he isn’t the only player who is capable of hitting shots from the perimeter. Shooting 36.4 percent as a team, Xavier also has Myles Davis making 38.2 percent of his threes.
While the offense is in remission, Wisconsin put together one of its more complete defensive performances of the season in the second half Friday by making sure no Panthers player could get into an offensive rhythm. That same kind of defensive performance will be needed – and them some - against a Xavier team that can score in bunches.
That means Wisconsin has to avoid mental lapses, prevent dribble penetration, communicate the switches to prevent open looks and match Xavier’s physicality in the low post. UW was aggressive without fouling Friday (only 11 for the game) and can’t allow Xavier to rack up the free shots. The Musketeers attempted 453 free throws in conference play, the most by any team in the Big East, and connected on 74 percent of their free throws.
The one way to disrupt Xavier’s offense is turnovers. Although averaging 12.8 per game this season, the Musketeers have averaged 14.5 turnovers over the last two games. Wisconsin’s plus-2.5 turnover margin was second in the Big Ten this season, and the Badgers have forced their last 14 opponents into double-digit turnovers.
Scoring 13.5 points off turnovers the last 14 games, Wisconsin will need to deliver its best defensive game of the season.