After Wisconsin and Penn State set basketball back to the peach basket days with the Nittany Lions 36-33 victory in the 2011 Big Ten tournament, the Badgers have put their act together and won eight straight games. They haven’t been easy though, winning only two of the games by double figures.
Not having won in Madison since 1995, the Nittany Lions will enter Madison on a two game losing streak after a 25-point road loss at Purdue. Outside of the loss in West Lafayette, Penn State’s other three conference losses have come by an average of 5.3 points.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for No.15 Wisconsin (16-3, 5-1 Big Ten) as they prepare to play Penn State (11-9, 3-4).
LAY UP: PROTECTING THE BALL
The Badgers have only committed double-digit turnovers in two of their Big Ten games (13 against Rutgers and at Minnesota). Wisconsin is averaging only 9.7 turnovers a game in conference play, but that number will certainly be tested against a Penn State’s defense forcing a Big Ten-best 14.9 turnovers per game. Showing a strong knack for forcing teams into mistakes, Michigan State has been the only Big Ten team to commit single digit turnovers against the Nittany Lions.
In the three games since beating the Spartans, Penn State has created an average of 17.5 turnovers by being active defensively, averaging 8.6 steals per game to bring its average in conference games up to 6.4. Josh Reaves has been one of the reasons for the high turnover number, as he leads the team with 2.4 steals over Big Ten play (second behind Ethan Happ’s 2.5 steals). Averaging 2.5 steals this season, Reaves has registered 13 steals over the last four games.
Protecting the ball was an issue during Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule, as the Badgers only had three games with single digit turnovers. That has been rectified in conference play, as the Badgers have only allowed teams to average 4.8 steals. UW has had passes stolen six steals in two of the last three games, so Bronson Koenig will need to be ready for the match-up and not allow Reaves to play against him tightly. Getting caught playing too fast or too loose with the ball will allow Penn State to get easy points in transition.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: REBOUNDING ON DEFENSE
Minnesota entered Saturday shooting 40.9 percent from the field and 31 percent from three in conference play, but the Gophers shot 46.9 percent (30-for-64) from the field and 9-for-17 (52.9 percent) from three in their narrow overtime loss. One of the reasons Minnesota had success was its ability to create spacing and distribute the ball, registering 19 assists on 30 made field goals.
It goes without saying, but UW will need a better performance against a struggling Nittany Lions offense. Penn State is shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from three over conference play. Penn State has four players who average double figures, led by Shep Garner’s 12.3 points per game on just 38.7 percent shooting. In Big Ten games, however, Garner has seen his scoring average dip to 7.8 points. Payton Banks (11.7 ppg), Lamar Stevens (11.6 ppg), and Tony Carr (11.4 ppg) round out the players who average double figures.
Garner isn’t the only Penn State player fighting his shot; Banks is shooting 39.1 percent from the floor and Carr is 34.6 percent. Stevens has been shooting the ball effectively this season (45 percent on an average of nine field goal attempts), but he has gone 6-for-25 (24 percent) from the field and averaged 5.3 points over the last three games.
One way opposing teams have been able to disrupt Stevens is tough defense, as he has committed 14 turnovers over the last five games. With how strong Wisconsin has been in finding ways to come up with steals (7.7 steals over Big Ten play), the Badgers will have their opportunity to contribute to his struggles.
3-POINTER: CAN WISCONSIN PUT TOGETHER A CONSISTENT FIRST HALF?
The opening 20 minutes were not kind to Wisconsin last week, shooting 37.9 percent on 29 attempts against Michigan and 41.9 percent on 31 field goal attempts at Minnesota. Although the shooting struggles have plagued Wisconsin, the Badgers have been able to respond in the second half and establish the offensive rhythm that was lacking in the first half. Over the last two games Wisconsin has shot above 50 percent from the field in the second half.
In order to put together a more consistent first half, the Badgers will need to find a way to buck the trend of shooting 42.1 percent from the field before halftime over Big Ten play. Penn State will make Wisconsin work on each offensive possession, as the NIttany Lions are allowing opposing Big Ten teams to shoot an average of 43 percent from the field.
Wisconsin shot 58.3 percent from the field in the second half against Minnesota, its highest shooting percentage in the second half since the win over Marquette (64.3 percent). Happ played an important role in the second half by scoring 22 points and shooting 81.8 percent on his 11 field goal attempts.
Happ demonstrated the dominance he’s capable during that half, drawing shades of Frank Kaminsky, and will have a chance those Kaminsky-esque tendencies against Mike Watkins (2.7 blocks per game). Watkins’ presence has helped Penn State allow only 29.7 points in the paint, although the Nittany Lions past four opponents have all scored at least 30 around the rim. If Happ and Nigel Hayes can have success down low, it should lead to opportunities for Koenig from the perimeter.
Penn State’s 3-point defense is allowing Big Ten teams to shoot 32.4 percent. Koenig has got off to a slow start over the last two games in the first half - going a combined 3-for-8 (37.5 percent) for eight points – but the senior has continued to hunt his 3-point shot. Ranking second in 3-point field goal percentage (61.3 percent) since Big Ten play started, Koenig connect from three can easily stretch Penn State’s defense.