Winners of seven in a row, No.14 Wisconsin begins Big Ten play Tuesday against a Rutgers squad that has started to turn a corner under first year head coach Steve Pikiell. Hired from Stony Brook to revitalize a program that went 7-25 last season (including 1-17 in Big Ten play) under head coach Eddie Jordan, Pikiell has guided the Scarlet Knights to an 11-2 record through a so-so schedule, which includes going 1-2 against teams from last year’s N.C.A.A. tournament.
In this Badger Nation feature we look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as they prepare to play Rutgers in the Big Ten opener.
LAY UP: CAN WISCONSIN FORCE RUTGERS TO SETTLE FOR THREE’S?
Wisconsin has shown it can be a stingy 3-point defense, holding teams to 34.4 percent from three (ninth in the Big Ten) and held North Carolina, Syracuse and Florida A&M all under 28 percent shooting. Can Wisconsin duplicate that success in Big Ten play? The Badgers will have a chance to start off on the right foot considering the Scarlet Knights shoot 30 percent from three, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten.
Rutgers has only shot above 40 percent twice this season against Central Connecticut State (10 attempts) and Fordham (nine attempts). Wisconsin will need to be able to limit post touches and close out on the 3-point shooter to prevent Rutgers from having an open look.
With Rutgers shooting such a low percentage from the perimeter, it’s not surprising that none of the Scarlet Knights have excelled from distance, as only two players are shooting at least 36 percent from three. Wisconsin’s defense will need to be aware of where Mike Williams and Issa Thiam are on the floor, as the two lead the team in 3-point attempts with 60 and 50, respectively.
Looking at the attempts from three from both Williams and Thiam, the majority of their shot selections come from distance. Sixty of Williams’ 103 shots come from the perimeter (58.3 percent) and Thiam has attempted 50 of his 60 shots from 3-point range (83.3 pecent). It’s important that Wisconsin’s defense keeps the two in front to prevent driving lanes.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: ESTABLISHING A RHYTHM ON OFFENSE
Wisconsin has been able to strike a balance on offense during its current winning streak. Starting by generating scoring opportunities in the paint, the dedication to the low post has opened up other opportunities for the offense and helped the Badgers shoot 52.2 percent from the field on an average of 59.5 shot attempts a game over the seven game win streak.
Wisconsin will be challenged to strike that same kind of balance against Rutgers’ tough defense. During the nonconference schedule, Rutgers allowed 61.8 points a game, which ranks third in the Big Ten, and limited teams to 37.2 percent from the field, which ranks second in the Big Ten.
But against the three teams Rutgers has faced from last year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, two of the three shot above 40 percent from the field. Miami and Stony Brook shot 48.1 percent and 42.1 percent, respectively, while Seton Hall shot 38.1 percent on Friday.
If Wisconsin is going to strike a balance on offense, they’ll need to be able to knock down mid-range and perimeter shots to help open up opportunities in the paint for Ethan Happ. Rutgers has held teams to 32.5 percent from three on an average of 7.1 made 3s a contest. But since the Badgers started attacking the post more over the last month, they’ve generated more open looks from 3-point range and capitalized with a 40.1 percent shooting percentage.
Although he has gone 3-for-16 from 3-point range the last two games, Bronson Koenig has shown to be one of Wisconsin’s more consistent perimeter shooters as of late, considering he has shot above 40 percent from 3-point range in the previous four games.
If Koenig can hit some outside shots and continue to distribute the basketball, it will allow Happ and the rest of Wisconsin’s frontcourt to capitalize and generate high quality shots down low. It could also give Wisconsin a chance at offensive rebounds, as the Badgers average 12.4 offensive boards and 13.1 points off its second chances. Rutgers has limited opponents to 10.5 offensive rebounds a contest but this will easily be the Scarlet Knights’ toughest challenge to date.
3-POINTER: DISRUPTING RUTGERS BALANCE ON OFFENSE
Having four players average at least 10 points a game who all shoot at least 40 percent of the field, Rutgers is led in scoring by Nigel Johnson (12.7 ppg) and DeShawn Freeman (12.2). Wisconsin has shown to take certain players off their games and force their teammates to try and beat them, as the Badgers held their nonconference opponents to 39.5 percent from the field.
In particular Wisconsin will need to be ready to defend Corey Sanders, who has scored in double figures in four of the last five games by shooting 58 percent on 10 shot attempts a game. Outside of scoring, Sanders leads the team with 50 assists but also has a team-high 33 turnovers. Head coach Greg Gard could use either Koenig or Zak Showalter to try and slow Sanders down but Showalter has developed into a terrific defender, especially over the last six games.
Showalter has registered 19 steals this year but 15 have come over the last six games, including a career-high six against Green Bay. Showalter has consistently been able to lock his man down this year and disrupt him from getting into a rhythm. Showalter’s defense has the potential to limit Sanders’ clean looks at the basket and cut off passing lanes.
With Showalter’s activeness on defense, Wisconsin has force teams into an average of 14.8 turnovers over Wisconsin’s seven game winning streak. Rutgers is averaging 13.2 turnovers a game and have shown to be sloppy with the ball at times, having committed at least 15 turnovers in six games this season. Wisconsin will have to consistently be active on defense to make sure Rutgers can’t move the ball effectively (14 assists per game) to prevent them from creating an open shot.