Wisconsin was able to end the conference regular season on a high note, taking care of business by beating Minnesota Sunday to secure the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. Despite going through a rough patch in the month of February, and losing to Iowa to begin March, Wisconsin’s win over the Gophers certainly could provide the spark the Badgers need to have success in Washington.
In the win against Minnesota, the Badgers put together a strong second half on offense and were equally impressive on the defensive side of the floor throughout the game in holding a strong offense to 49 points. If Wisconsin can combine those kinds of performances, the Badgers will give themselves a chance to have a successful trip to D.C.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (23-8) as it strives to win a fourth Big Ten tournament championship.
LAY UP: DISRUPTING OPPOSING OFFENSES
Wisconsin’s defense may have struggled in February but the Badgers still finished first in scoring defense (63.2 points per game), third in field goal percentage defense (41.6 percent), third in steals (7.2 steals per game) and third in turnovers created (13.4 turnovers forced a game) over conference play.
Whether facing Iowa or Indiana Friday, Wisconsin knows it’ll be facing a talented offense. Iowa and Indiana both finished in the top seven of conference play in scoring offense, field goal percentage, and three point percentage.
Wisconsin has done well of limiting teams in the paint over Big Ten play, but the Badgers have struggled to defend the 3-point line, finishing 13th in the league with a 40.4 opponent shooting percentage. In the lone match-up against Iowa last Thursday, the Badgers allowed the Hawkeyes to shoot 47.4 percent (9-for-19) from three. In the two games against Indiana, the Hoosiers went a combined 12-for-35 (34.2 percent) from three.
There are other challenges to consider should Wisconsin survive. A semifinal game likely against Maryland or Northwestern will mean the Badgers will contend with talented point guards (Maryland’s Melo Trimble and Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh). UW held both teams under their scoring average, but the Wildcats shot 44.8 percent in their win at the Kohl Center and McIntosh had 25 points.
If Wisconsin can build off of its defensive performance from Sunday and remain strong in defending the paint, the Badgers will give themselves the chance of preventing teams from creating a balance on offense.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: THE PLAY OF HAPP
Consistently facing double teams on offense prevented Ethan Happ from being the kind of player he was earlier in the year. Still named a first-team All-Big Ten player, Happ had five single-digit scoring games in the last nine outings compared to having only five games below 10 points in Wisconsin’s first 22 games. But when Happ had success scoring over the last nine games, he capitalized in a big way with three performance of at least 20 points.
In order for Wisconsin to be a true threat offensively, it needs to have Happ to find success in the lane and around the rim. Struggling to complete plays in the paint, Happ has averaged 12.3 points over the last nine games and shot 52.8 percent on an average of 9.6 field goal attempts a game.
In Happ’s two games against the Hoosiers, the sophomore averaged 19.5 points per game and shot above 72 percent in both UW wins. The Hawkeyes’ youth had better success, holding Happ to 11 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the field.
Even though Happ’s scoring consistency has dipped, he hasn’t allowed it to affect everything else that he does well. Happ has remained a strong rebounder, registering at least six rebounds over the last nine games (three double-digit rebounding games), and delivered 28 assists and 17 steals. Happ will need to remain aggressive throughout the tournament and hunt for his shot around the rim, opportunity that could become plentiful if his teammates can knock down mid-range and 3-point shots. Getting offense from different outlets will allow Wisconsin to spread the floor and prevent teams from consistently doubling Happ.
Wisconsin will likely find themselves in a close game at some point, and Happ will need to be able to knock down his free throw attempts. Shooting 47.8 percent from the line this season on an average of 4.5 free throw attempts, Happ has gone just 2-for-14 (14.2 percent) in the last three games. In order for Wisconsin to move on in the tournament, Happ will need to deliver at a more consistent rate or risk being put on the bench.
3-POINTER: CAN WISCONSIN BE CONSISTENT ON OFFENSE?
The way Wisconsin ended conference play was a snapshot of how the Badgers have shot the ball over Big Ten play. After finishing at 38.7 percent (12-for-31) from the field in the first half, Wisconsin shot 50 percent (13-for-26) over the last 20 minutes. It has become clear that Wisconsin is a second-half team in Big Ten play, considering the Badgers shot 39.1 percent on an average of 28.7 field goal attempts in the first half compared to the 45.3 percent on 28.1 field goal attempts after halftime.
Prior to Sunday, the last time Wisconsin shot at least 50 percent from the field in the second half was against Maryland (51.5 percent on 33 attempts). Wisconsin was able to follow up that strong second half of shooting by shooting an average of 43.3 percent over the next four games on an average of 58.2 attempts.
Who Wisconsin faces in the Big Ten tournament will determine the challenge of putting together two consistent halves. Facing either Iowa or Indiana in the quarterfinals, a Wisconsin win would likely mean a second meeting against Maryland or Northwestern and another win could set up a Wisconsin-Purdue championship. Of the five teams listed, only Indiana and Iowa finished outside the top seven in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, and 3-point field goal percentage defense.
Likely facing some talented defenses that are capable of preventing teams from generating an offensive flow, the Badgers are going to need to find a way to capitalize on the second chances they generate or cashing opposing team’s mistakes into points. Those are two areas Wisconsin has found success in during the 18-game Big Ten schedule, averaging 12.1 points off offensive rebounds and averaged 13.6 points off of turnovers. Happ has been one of the reasons for those numbers with an average of 3.1 offensive rebounds per game and leading the conference in steals (2.3).
As important as Happ’s success is down low, the play of Bronson Koenig is just as important. When Koenig’s shot is falling the Badgers become a difficult team to defend. Not known for driving and attacking, Koenig will try and create the space he needs to hit a mid-range jumper or a 3-pointer.
After going 0-for-5 from three in the loss to Northwestern, Koenig responded with at least four 3-pointers in three of the last five games. In the two other games over that stretch, Koenig went 1-for-5 against Maryland and 1-for-9 at Michigan State. Wisconsin can’t afford to have Koenig contribute those kind of shooting performances from the perimeter, as his ability to knock down the three creates the spacing Wisconsin needs in order to have success.