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No.14 Wisconsin opens Big Ten play tonight hosting a much-improved Rutgers

Entering conference play with a seven game winning streak, No.14 Wisconsin will host a resurgent Rutgers at the Kohl Center tonight. We breakdown the matchup.

Rutgers (11-2, 0-0 Big Ten) vs. No.14 Wisconsin (11-2, 0-0 Big Ten)

Date/Time – Tuesday, December 27, 6 p.m. central

Arena – Kohl Center (17,287)

Television – ESPN2 (Bob Picozzi and LaPhonso Ellis)

Radio –Badgers Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)

Series – Wisconsin leads 4-1 (Wisconsin leads 2-0 in Madison)

Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 79-57, on January 2, 2016, in Madison

WISCONSIN PROBABLE STARTERS

3 Zak Showalter (6-3 Senior Guard, 7.4 ppg)

10 Nigel Hayes (6-8 Senior Forward, 13.5 ppg)

22 Ethan Happ (6-10 Sophomore Forward, 12.9 ppg)

24 Bronson Koenig (6-2 Senior Guard, 14.6 ppg)

30 Vitto Brown (6-8 Senior Forward, 8.0 ppg)

OFF THE BENCH

0 D'Mitrik Trice (6-0 Freshman Guard, 6.7 ppg)

15 Charles Thomas (6-8 Sophomore Forward, 3.5 ppg)

21 Khalil Iverson (6-5 Sophomore Forward, 5.1 ppg)

PLAYER TO WATCH

Showalter is averaging 7.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg with a team-best 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio (29 assists to 12 turnovers). The senior is also tied for third in the Big Ten, averaging 1.5 steals per game.

RUTGERS PROBABLE STARTERS

0 Nigel Johnson (6-1 Junior Guard, 12.7 ppg)

3 Corey Sanders (6-2 Sophomore Guard, 10.7 ppg)

11 Eugene Omoruyi (6-6 Freshman Forward, 2.2 ppg)

33 DeShawn Freeman (6-7 Junior Forward, 12.2 ppg)

34 @C.J. Gettys (7-0 Senior Center, 8.6 ppg)

OFF THE BENCH

4 Jonathan Laurent (6-10 Sophomore Center, 4.1 ppg)

5 Mike Williams (6-2 Junior Guard, 11.4 ppg)

21 Candido Sa (6-9 Junior Forward, 5.3 ppg)

35 Issa Thiam (6-9 Freshman Forward, 5.3 ppg)

PLAYER TO WATCH

Williams has scored in double figures in eight of Rutgers’ 13 games off the bench, as well as registering 4.2 rebounds per game.

LAST TIME OUT

MADISON – Freshman guard D'Mitrik Trice scored a game-high 14 points to pace No. 14 Wisconsin to a 90-37 victory over Florida A&M at the Kohl Center Friday.

Thirteen different players scored for the Badgers (11-2), who extended their winning streak to seven games.

Playing its first game since Dec.14 due to a break for final exams, Wisconsin utilized its distinct size advantage in the low post to score 40 points in the paint and shoot 52.3 percent (27 of 58) from the field.

It was the fourth biggest win in school history for Wisconsin, which hasn’t lost following a week-long December break since a two-point home loss to Providence in 1996.

Wisconsin senior forward Vitto Brown added 11 points and a season-high eight rebounds in only 18 minutes, causing head coach Greg Gard to say that’s the best the second-year starter has rebounded through 13 games this season.

The Badgers didn't play any of their starters more than 22 minutes. Sophomore Charles Thomas scored 11 points of the bench, as Wisconsin's reserves outscored Florida A&M's bench 52-9.

Playing without leading scorer Desmond Williams (16.3 ppg), who was injured on Thursday, the Rattlers shot 25.9 percent but hung with the home team through the opening 10 minutes.

That changed when Wisconsin used a 19-2 run to open a 41-17 margin with 1:05 remaining in the first half, getting production from the paint (four points), the free throw line (six points) and the three-point line (nine points).

Wisconsin led by at least 21 the remainder of the game, outscoring Florida A&M 40-8 in the paint and outrebounding the visitors 53-21.

SERIES NOTES

Saturday’s game marks the sixth meeting between Wisconsin and Rutgers in a series that began in 1949.

The Badgers are 1-1 against Rutgers since the New Jersey school joined the Big Ten.

Last year’s win over the Scarlet Knights was Greg Gard’s first conference win.

The Badgers have won 12 of their last 13 Big Ten openers dating back to 2003-04. UW's only loss during that stretch came in last season's conference opener, falling 61-55 to No. 14 Purdue on Dec. 29, 2015.

LAST MEETING

MADISON – A role player throughout his first three seasons at Wisconsin, Zak Showalter has admitted that moving to a full-time starting role has taken a period of adjustment. With conference play in its infancy and UW still looking for consistent scorers, Showalter showed that he’s more than just an energizer.

Showalter’s scoring and hustle ignited runs in the first and second half for Wisconsin, which needed the lift from the junior guard to get past Rutgers, 79-57, at the Kohl Center in a game that was tighter than the final score indicated.

Finishing its seven game homestand 4-3 and on a high note against one of the two Big Ten teams that defeated them a year ago, Wisconsin (9-6, 1-1 Big Ten) got a career-high 21 points from Showalter to lead three players in double figures.

The 6-2 junior entered the day shooting 42.9 percent and averaging 7.7 points, but was a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, including 4-for-4 from 3-point range and made his only free throw, but opened up many avenues to score points that ended up being critical.

In the first half alone, he skied for an athletic block that took a layup away from D.J. Foreman, rebounded a Bronson Koenig miss for an easy putback and stole a pass from freshman Corey Sanders at the top of the key that led to an easy layup.

“That has to remain our DNA,” said head coach Greg Gard. “We need to play hard. That’s part of playing hard.”

With Koenig chipping in 14 points and four assists, including a perfectly executed alley-oop pass to Khalil Iverson for a slam, and getting bench production from Jordan Hill and Jordan Smith, UW’s backcourt scored a season-high 43 points.

Rutgers (6-9, 0-2), which has now lost 17 consecutive Big Ten games, opened the second half on an 8-1 run, cutting a double-digit lead down to 43-39 with 15:51 remaining by taking advantage of UW’s sluggish offense (0-for-7 from the field) and lapses defensively.

Showalter broke that funk when he drove to the basket off the dribble, converted at the rim and drew a foul to ignite a spark. Over the next six minutes, Wisconsin went on an 18-4 run that was comprised of consistent post touches that led to success in the interior and kick outs to wide-open shooters.

WISCONSIN NOTES

The Badgers have boasted a winning conference record in each of the last 16 seasons, equaling the longest run of continued success in the 109-year history of Big Ten basketball.

Overall, Wisconsin is averaging 78.0 ppg (5th in Big Ten) and shooting 48.9 percent from the field (3rd in Big Ten). Through 13 games last season, the Badgers were scoring 70.5 ppg and shooting just 41.8 percent.

Sporting one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (10th according to KenPom.com), the Badgers are averaging 85.1 ppg and shooting 52.3 percent over the last seven outings.

Wisconsin has held nine of its 13 opponents to season-low point totals. According to KenPom.com, the Badgers rank 18th in the NCAA in adjusted defensive efficiency.

RUTGERS NOTES

Steve Pikiell is off to the best start for a head coach in Rutgers men’s basketball history, surpassing the 8-2 marks posted by Gary Waters in 2001-02 and Donald S. White in 1945-46 to begin their tenures.

Rutgers started 6-0 for the first time since 1975-76.

Rutgers is holding teams to 61.8 points per game, winning by an average of 11.6 points per game.

The Scarlet Knights are holding teams to 37.2 percent shooting from the field, including 32.5 percent from 3-point range.

PREDICTION

Wisconsin’s nonconfence schedule provided some tough challenges. The Badgers played three games against the RPI top 60 (two in consecutive days in Maui) and five games against the KenPom top 55. UW’s best RPI win is Georgetown (59th) and its two losses came at Creighton (six) and against North Carolina (15) in the Maui Invitational finals.

A good chunk of Wisconsin’s home games, however, provided little punch. Wisconsin’s six “buy” games included Green Bay (175 in KenPom) but Idaho State (295), Prairie View A&M (324), Central Arkansas (330), Chicago State (331) and Florida A&M (349) are among the 56 worst teams in division 1 using those rankings. That group has combined for only five wins vs. d-1 teams.

Even Wisconsin’s two wins over 2016 Final Four teams – Oklahoma and Syracuse – come with a caveat considering both of those teams are having to replace considerable pieces from last year and have 100+ RPIs.

Needless to say, the road gets much tougher from here on out, especially since the Big Ten currently has half of its league ranked in the top 52 of KenPom.

“I feel like we’re in a good position right now,” Brown said. “I’m definitely excited. I know Rutgers is going to be a good challenge for us.”

After building Stony Brook into an N.C.A.A. a year ago, Steve Pikiell is trying to do the same with the Scarlet Knight, and the DNA is made up of a group that is going to play gritty and tough on both ends of the floor.

“You look at numbers of shooting percentages, defensive field goal percentage, points per game, all those things are considerably lower than they were a year ago,” Gard said. “What they are doing defensively, you freeze the film and watch how they are positioning, (Pikiell) is doing a very good job.”

Rutgers likes to grind things defensively and attack the glass on both ends on the floor. It’s a way to level the playing the field against teams who are more talented than they are, and a reason why the Scarlet Knights attempt more shots right around the basket than any other team in the country.

“A lot of its dribble drive, a lot of its offensive rebounding,” Gard said. “It’s a product of who they are. It’s by design.”

The other part of the design? Easing into things. Of Rutgers’ 12 nonconference against division-1 teams, 10 came against teams with a RPI higher than 145, including eight with a RPI higher than 244. The two games Rutgers played against teams with a RPI under 100, the Scarlet Knights lost. Referencing KenPom, Rutgers’ strength of schedule rates at 347 out of 351.

Wisconsin’s conference schedule is going to get tough quickly with back-to-back road games at Indiana (Jan.3) and Purdue (Jan.8), so this appears to be a good one to start with. Shots certainly won't come as easy as they did Friday against Florida A&M, but Rutgers’ defense will struggle against Wisconsin’s strong interior game, which also could open up some things on the perimeter.

Wisconsin by 17.

Worgull's Record: 11-2

Points off Prediction: 127 (9.8 per game)


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