Wisconsin had been flirting with losing over its past eight games but manage to rely primarily on its defense or scrape together enough offense in the second half (or in three overtimes) to emerge victorious. The struggles by Wisconsin finally caught up to them on Sunday, as Northwestern’s ability to aggressively defend and exploit gaps in the Badgers’ defense ended UW’s eight game win streak.
One team Wisconsin beat over that win streak was Michigan, a game the Wolverines probably felt like they allowed to get away from them considering they led by as many as eight points with 12:40 to go in the second half and were up six with 6:29 remaining.
The Wolverines will have their chance at avenging that loss Thursday, as Michigan has been tough at home (13-3) and have averaged 80.5 points in the last two games (vs. Michigan State, at Indiana). Wisconsin has posted an 8-3 record away from the Kohl Center this season and is 4-1 on its last five road trips to Ann Arbor.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) as they prepare to play Michigan (16-9, 6-6) in Ann Arbor.
LAY UP: DEFENDING THE 3-POINT LINE
Wisconsin has shown how strong of a defensive team it can be in Big Ten play, ranking in the top three in scoring defense (61.6 points per game), field goal percentage defense (40.9 percent), steals (7.4 steals a game) and turnovers forced a game (13.9). The one area where Wisconsin’s defense has struggled is defending the 3-point line, as the 38.8 percent Big Ten teams are shooting against them puts the Badgers 12th in the conference.
The Wolverines have shot 39.1 percent over conference play and shot 47.6 percent (10-for-21) from three in the first meeting against Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s 3-point defense was a tale of two halves in that meeting, holding Michigan to 30 percent on 10 attempts in the first half but seeing the Wolverines shoot 63.6 percent (7-for-11) after halftime.
Since the win against Michigan, Wisconsin has allowed opposing Big Ten teams to 39.3 percent (46-for-117) from three. But over Wisconsin’s last two games, the Badgers allowed Nebraska to shoot 6-for-14 (42.9 percent) and Northwestern was 7-for-17 (41.2 percent).
One issue in Sunday’s loss was the fact Wisconsin allowed the Wildcats to generate shots from the perimeter uncontested. Michigan has been streaky from three over the last five game, shooting 47.6 percent (10-for-21) against Michigan State and 55 percent (11-for-20) at Indiana Sunday, but the Wolverines shot 37 percent or less in the two games preceding the victory over the Spartans.
Wisconsin will need to be careful of the talented 3-point shooters Michigan possesses, as Derrick Walton attempts 5.5 threes per game, Duncan Robinson attempts 4.5 threes and Zak Irvin shoots four per game. All three made at least two 3-pointers against Wisconsin and Walton and Robinson both went 3-for-5. If Wisconsin can’t rotate consistently on defense, the Wolverines will be able to create enough separation to get clean looks, potentially making the Badgers pay for their mistakes.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: SLOWING DOWN WALTON
Although it took him 23 shots to register 21 points from the floor, Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh’s 25 points were the most Wisconsin allowed an individual to score against them in conference play. The UW defense once again will be challenged with Walton being on a recent offensive tear.
Over the last five games Walton has averaged 23 points, registered five straight 20-point games and has bumped his conference average to 17.2 points per game. Prior to his recent scoring outburst, Walton was averaging 13 points and shooting 42.8 percent (27-for-63) over Michigan’s first seven Big Ten games. Over the last five Walton has shot below 50 percent once (going 4-for-12 against Michigan State), not to mention shooting 73.3 percent from 3-point range the last three games.
Wisconsin can ill afford to allow Walton to have the same kind of success as McIntosh. Zak Showalter, who drew the assignment of McIntosh, will likely get Walton and needs to close down the Michigan senior’s driving lanes to convert at the rim or draw contact. Over the last five games Walton is 35-for-38 from the free throw line and is converting 90.6 percent of his free throws this season.
Not only is Walton a capable scorer, he has registered 25 assists to eight turnovers over his five game stretch. If Showalter wants to force Walton into making a mistake, he’ll have his work cut out defensively to make sure the Wolverines don’t develop the same kind of tempo Northwestern did.
3-POINTER: CAN WISCONSIN TAKE PRESSURE OFF ETHAN HAPP?
It has become evident over the last two games that teams are going to start doubling Ethan Happ when he has the ball in the low post. That plan was executed flawlessly by Nebraska and Northwestern, which held him to eight and nine points, respectively, on a combined 6-for-17 shooting from the field.
With Wisconsin shooting 37.5 percent (105-for-280) and 27.3 percent (29-for-106) from three over the last five games, Happ should continue to see extra attention until the Badgers find a way to shoot themselves out of their offensive woes. Simply put, Wisconsin struggling to find the bottom of the net as of late hasn’t made teams pay for trying to take Happ out of the game.
Before Bronson Koenig hit his current shooting slump, the senior’s 3-point marksmanship stretched defenses. Koenig’s offensive funk has coincided with a left leg injury and has affected all aspects of his game, having shot 37 percent or less from the field over the last five games and hasn’t made more than four field goals over that stretch. Koenig hasn’t been much better from 3-point range, as 31 of his 55 attempts have come from three and he has only managed to connect on seven of the attempts. Koenig went 0-for-5 in the loss to Northwestern.
With Koenig struggling, Showalter has increased his offense by registering two consecutive double-digit scoring performances. In particular Showalter has found success from three, making at least two of his 3-point attempts in each game and making at least one over the last four games, going 9-for-16 from three during that stretch.
Michigan has struggled to defend the 3-point line over conference play, allowing teams to shoot 41.9 percent, but held Wisconsin is 37.5 percent (6-for-16) that started with the Badgers going 2-for-12. Bottom line: UW needs to start hitting mid-range and outside shots in order to help make life easier for Happ in the post and to create an offensive balance.