After registering a victory in the season opener Friday, the question remains how much did head coach Greg Gard learn about his Wisconsin team in a 32-point victory? One thing for certain is that Gard will certainly have a better idea of where his team is at tonight as they prepare to play their first true road game of the season against No. 22 Creighton.
Despite Creighton missing the N.C.A.A. tournament the last two seasons, the Bluejays have the talent and experience to return to the big dance and will certainly serve as a good measuring stick game for a Wisconsin program that went 6-5 on the road last season (5-4 under Gard).
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin in order to win against Creighton.
LAY UP: Creating extra offensive possessions
Wisconsin showed its defensive prowess by holding the Bears to 28.3 percent from the field and registering six steals. If Wisconsin wants to leave Omaha, Neb., with a victory, the Badgers are going to need to find a way to create the same kind of pressure.
Wisconsin has the ability to match-up with Creighton and can use its length and how active they are on defense to its advantage. Wisconsin registered 15 points off 12 Bears turnovers a season after Wisconsin averaged 13.3 points off of turnovers. Creighton averaged 11.6 turnovers a game last year but committed 17 in its opening win over UMKC.
Wisconsin creating miscues will be a team effort and having players being in the right spot to create steals. Ethan Happ – the conference leader in steals last year - picked up where he left off last season by registering a team-high two steals in the opener and saw four of his teammates register a steal.
Creating a lot of takeaways will depend on Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter and their defensive effort on Maurice Watson Jr., who averaged a team-high 3.2 turnovers a game. Despite the high number of turnovers, Watson has the capability of making plays with the ball in his hands, as he averaged 6.5 assists a game. Disrupting Watson and shutting down passing lanes will be key. If Wisconsin’s guards can do that, the Badgers could have a big game defensively and in transition.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: Can Wisconsin win the rebounding battle
Wisconsin had its struggles on the glass last year when Big Ten play started. The Badgers didn’t have the length at times to attack the glass consistently and finished 13th in Big Ten play in rebounds per game (30.9). Despite Wisconsin struggling to collect rebounds off of missed shots, they limited conference opponents to only 31.7 rebounds per game.
Happ was one of the main reasons for that, finishing the season leading the team in rebounds and having 5.4 of his 7.9 rebounds come off of defensive rebounds. In total, Happ had 11 games last season where he registered at least double digit rebounds and had 10 double-doubles on the season.
Happ will need to be ready to box out Cole Huff, who finished second on the team in rebounds last year (5.1). The one thing Happ will need to be careful when boxing out Huff, or another member of Creighton’s frontcourt, is not drawing a foul or allowing an offensive rebound. UW needs to limit Creighton to one shot per possession, as the Bluejays shot 47 percent as a team last season and 50.8 percent in their first game.
Creighton allowed teams to shoot 43.2 percent last year, so Wisconsin will have to work for its opportunities. The Badgers had 14 offensive rebounds against Central Arkansas but things should be considerably tougher considering Creighton allowed 9.7 offensive rebounds a year ago, making it important that Wisconsin stays active as a team, box out in order to try and get the rebound and get a quality shot off.
3-POINTER: Slowing Maurice Watson and Cole Huff down
Creighton head coach Greg McDermott hit the jackpot with Watson transferring from Boston University and Huff from Nevada. Watson led the two averaging 14.1 points per game and Huff finished with 11.3 points a contest, as the two both shot at least 43 percent from the field.
Watson is capable of attacking the hoop, meaning UW’s guards will need quick footwork to prevent being beaten off the dribble. Watson’s strength is his quickness, as he can get to the rim and draw fouls, evident by his team-best 161 free-throw attempts in 2015-16. Even if Watson picks up his dribble, his court vision is superb, and he averaged a team-best 6.5 assists per game. The goal for Wisconsin is to force Watson to shoot from the perimeter, where he hit just 29.7 percent of his 64 attempts last year.
Watson has a big low post target in the 6-8 Huff, who can play inside and outside for the Bluejays. Senior Nigel Hayes has showed how valuable he could be on the defensive end and he’ll likely draw the assignment.
Hayes finished second to Happ in steals last season (1.1 per game) and will try to frustrate a senior who only committed 20 turnovers last year. Hayes will need to take away the block from Huff and make sure Creighton can’t consistently attack the basket and score in the lane. Allowing only 25.8 points a game in the paint last season, Wisconsin’s defense can’t afford to get lost or miscommunicate the switches. Like Watson, Wisconsin will want to force Creighton to settle for shots around the 3-point line, where they shot only 35.2 percent last year.