The numbers are well known now surrounding what is returning for Wisconsin basketball team - 99.8 percent of minutes played, 99.7 percent of its scoring and the entire starting five that made it to the Sweet 16 a year ago. It is part of the reason why Wisconsin is ranked No. 9 in the AP poll to start the season under second year head coach Greg Gard.
Despite all that returns, Wisconsin still has to go and show they can live up to the lofty expectations. That journey officially starts tomorrow night against Central Arkansas, which finished 7-21 a season ago.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives to win the season opener in the first meeting between the two programs.
Lay up: Play of Wisconsin’s Bench
The bench had its struggles last year from a scoring standpoint (9.5 points per game) and contributing in other areas, but the bench was mostly comprised of three true freshman and redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Hill, who was making his first significant contribution to Wisconsin. The group grew considerably as the season progressed and should be a strength this season considering the Badgers are projected to have the same starting five.
After being one of the Badgers’ more consistent bench players last season, sophomore Khalil Iverson could be one of Gard’s first options, especially since it appears he took a step in his development on both ends of the court over the offseason.
Wisconsin’s starters should be able to generate scoring opportunities against a Bears program that gave up 83.7 points per game last year. A sizable lead will allow Gard an opportunity to evaluate different combinations to see how Wisconsin’s bench can play in a live game, especially since Wisconsin has a tough road test at No.22 Creighton Tuesday night. Not wanting to tax the starters this early in the season means it’ll be important that Iverson, Hill, Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas take advantage of the minutes to continue developing and show they can be relied on as the season progresses.
It’ll also be interesting to see what role freshman point guard D'Mitrik Trice will have and how he handles his opportunity to run the offense. Trice had a solid debut in the exhibition against UW-Platteville, registering three points, two assists and zero turnovers in 12 minutes of work. It’s hard to predict how much Trice will play in the season opener but getting him minutes in games against the Bears will allow him to be ready if called upon in the future.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin Generate High Percentage Shots
Building an early lead Friday will likely start with the play of Wisconsin’s frontcourt, a group that averaged 24.7 points per game last season. Against the Bears, the experience Wisconsin’s frontcourt has should be able to take advantage down low and find ways of converting about the basket.
In Central Arkansas’ exhibition win against Southwest Baptist University, the Bears started Derreck Brooks, Aaron Weidenaar and Albert Christensson in the frontcourt. Brooks, the second returning leading scorer (12.1 ppg), returns as the leader in blocks (34) and steals (26), but Weidenaar is a freshman and Christensson averaged 7.8 minutes last year.
Ethan Happ displayed last year how effective he is when he’s around the basket and his low-post game consistently developed throughout the year. There were times last year where Happ would be able to spark a Wisconsin run with his play around the rim. Regardless of his matchup, Happ should have the upper hand and the opportunity to use one of his improved post moves to finish around the rim. If Happ and Wisconsin can rack up the fouls, they’ll need to be able to convert. UW went just 22-for-39 from the line against Platteville, a percentage that could hurt Wisconsin in bigger games this season.
Brooks is one of Central Arkansas’ better defenders and he will likely defend Nigel Hayes, meaning UW’s senior will be tested on his ball handling right away. Hayes’ 2.2 turnovers per game led the team. If Wisconsin can generate good ball movement around the perimeter, it should help neutralize Brooks and open up perimeter shots, as the Bears allowed teams to shoot 38.7 percent from three and 46.9 percent overall in games last season.
3-pointer: Slowing down Jordan Howard
Central Arkansas returns 71.1 percent of its scoring and four of its top five scorers, including first-team All-Southland conference player Jordan Howard (team-best 20.2 points per game). Slowing Howard down will be a challenge after he shot 42.6 percent from the field last year, meaning Wisconsin will have to make sure he doesn’t have the chance to shoot an uncontested three. Howard averaged 14.7 field goal attempts a game in 2015-16 and roughly eight of those attempts came from three. He finished the season with a school-record 95 made threes.
Howard scored in double figures in every game but one last season and played well against good competition. In five games against N.C.A.A. tournament teams, Howard shot 43.2 percent from the floor and registered 16 points against national semifinalist Oklahoma.
The combination of Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter will need to know where Howard is, force him to pick up his dribble and take away any passing lanes. Not only did Howard led the team in points, he averaged a team-best 3.4 assists per game, two categories that helped gloss over his 2.1 turnovers per game.
Wisconsin averaged 5.9 steals a game last year, which ranked fifth in the Big Ten, and the Badgers have the potential to improve upon that number. Happ returns after leading the Big Ten in steals (63) and Iverson, who led the bench in steals (12) and blocks (20), could see his defensive numbers go up with him being a year more mature. If Wisconsin can stick to its defensive assignments and consistently contest shots, the Badgers should be able to disrupt the rhythm of one of the best scorers on the court.