The final tune-up for No.14 Wisconsin before Big Ten begins will happen Friday against Florida A&M. With Wisconsin having eight days off for final exams, the Badgers should be well rested from the win over Green Bay.
The same can’t be said about Florida A&M, which will be playing late tonight in Birmingham, Ala., before flying up to Madison. Winless against division-1 teams this season, this is not an ideal situation for head coach Byron Samuels and a Rattlers team allowing 84.5 points a game.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it prepares to play Florida A&M.
LAY UP: PROTECTING THE BASKETBALL
An area of struggle to begin nonconference play has since turned into an area where Wisconsin has been improving. Since Wisconsin’s season-high 18 turnovers against Tennessee, the Badgers have committed an average of 10 turnovers a game. Look at the numbers a little farther and you’ll see the Badgers have committed single-digit turnovers in three of their last four games.
The recent success of taking care of the ball should continue if Wisconsin is able to communicate effectively on the floor. The Rattlers have shown they are capable of taking the ball away via a steal, as at least four players have registered at least 10 steals this season. Florida A&M is led by K’Ja Johnson, who registered a season-high seven steals against Johnson University and has registered a steal in four straight games.
The trio of Nigel Hayes (40 assists), Zak Showalter (26 assists) and Bronson Koenig (25 assists) will be key in making sure Wisconsin avoids the silly turnover that have popped up at times this year. It wouldn’t be surprising to see if there was miscommunication early on in the game due to the lay off and with the holidays, but at the same time Wisconsin can’t allow the Rattlers to gain any early confidence. The Badgers will need to be crisp with each play in order to build a lead.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: ESTABLISHING THE POST
Wisconsin certainly has made getting the ball down low a priority as of late and the Badgers’ offense has received a significant boost because of it. Over the last six games the Badgers have averaged 35.6 points down low and scored at least 40 points in the paint three times.
Getting the ball in the post at such a high rate recently has also reflected in the Badgers’ shooting percentage, hitting 52.2 percent from the field over the last six games. That type of shooting percentage will help the Badgers win most games and should be a point of emphasis against the Rattlers.
Florida A&M doesn’t have the size or length to match up against Wisconsin in the low post, meaning Ethan Happ and Hayes should have a successful night. Hayes should be able to use one of his post moves to generate a high percentage shot or register an assist to Happ, who can do his damage for an offense averaging 31.3 points in the paint this season.
The one area of concern for Wisconsin through the nonconference season is free throw shooting, especially for Happ and Hayes. Hayes leads the team with 74 free throw attempts but he’s shooting 60.8 percent from the charity stripe. Happ isn’t doing any better, as he’s second to Hayes in free throw attempts and is shooting 50 percent (20-for-40) from the free throw line this season.
3-POINTER: THE PLAY OF WISCONSIN’S BENCH
With conference play starting Tuesday, Gard could be afforded the opportunity of going deep into his bench against the Rattlers. Wisconsin’s bench has been up and down this year: scoring at least 30 points three times but that came against Central Arkansas, Chicago State and Prairie View A&M. The production Wisconsin receives from its bench will be important to make sure Wisconsin’s starters don’t log heavy minutes before Big Ten play begins.
Wisconsin has averaged 19 bench points through 12 nonconference games with freshman D'Mitrik Trice leading the bench in scoring seven times and sophomore Khalil Iverson second with four. Those two have been the most consistent in receiving minutes, as Trice averaged 18.3 per game and Iverson averages 16. Outside of scoring they have produced in other areas, such as being strong on the defensive end and consistently making the smart play with the ball.
With Gard starting to settle on an eight-man rotation, this game will be important for sophomore Alex Illikainen, who has gone 0-for-6 over the last nine games and seen his minutes decrease. Outside of Illikainen, Charles Thomas certainly will have the opportunity to have success down low. Thomas has been active in looking for his shot. Due to his size and him willing to play physical down low, the sophomore should have the opportunity to generate points off of a tip in or him drawing the foul. Thomas has shown to be reliable from the free throw line (15-for-17) and his low-post play when Happ is or isn’t in the game will allow Wisconsin to continue to have success in opening up other scoring opportunities on offense.