Men's hoops: Zone busting

UW was efficient early in its last meeting with PSU; Badgers made need a similar performance today

The last time these teams met, Wisconsin buried Penn State in an avalanche of 3-pointers in a Kohl Center rout. On Jan. 25 in Madison, the Badgers made 8 of 16 threes in the first half and 13 of 34 in the game to run away with a 72-43 win, solving the Nittany Lions' zone defense with relative easy.

In that affair, the Badgers led 40-18 at halftime, having made 50 percent (14 of 28) of their shots overall in the first 20 minutes.

"We had some looks and we knocked them down," assistant coach Gary Close said. "Against zones you've got to do that…. It's not real complicated. You are going to get some looks and you (have) to make them count."

Saturday, Penn State plays host to the Badgers, the first time this season UW is playing a team for the second time.

Penn State plays zone — a combination 1-3-1 and 2-3 — exclusively, a result of starting the shortest lineup in the Big Ten, and possessing a collection of athletic players who can play passing lanes and, when shots are not falling, fluster an opponent by making it very difficult to move the ball.

"You (have) to get (the zone) moving to where you can create some openings," Close said, "whether you penetrate with the pass or the dribble and you try to draw people, but you've got to get the defense moving, with good ball movement, and some penetration when it's there. And then knock them down when you got them."

Simple enough. But in the second half of last month's rout, UW shot just 29 percent (8 of 28). When shots do not fall from outside, PSU can pack its zone in to protect the rim, a luxury that is key to stopping the Badgers, who thrive off of wing forward Alando Tucker's inside game.

"It's not easy (to get the ball inside), especially if you start missing a lot (from the perimeter)," Close said. "That's one of the beauties of zone is they can do a good job of taking your inside game away because they can pack it in there as deep as they want if you're not shooting (well). So it's going to come down to making some shots.

"Hopefully as the game evolves we're going to get a variety shots — not just all outside shots. And if you get a variety then, like in any offense, you are a lot tougher to defend."

The Badgers focused heavily on perimeter jumpers Jan. 25, swinging the ball around the outside for 3 after 3 after 3. Tucker and guard Ray Nixon combined to go 8 of 17 from long range, but just 2 of 9 after halftime. The Badgers, though, had built enough of a cushion in the first half that their second-half shooting struggles did little harm.

"We were still getting open shots, but just shots weren't going down," sophomore guard Michael Flowers said.

Since they last met, the Nittany Lions have reestablished themselves as a worthy adversary and then some, knocking off No. 6 Illinois on its home court a week ago.

To avoid a similar fate on the road at Penn State, the Badgers need to again free up shooters, and knock down their chances versus the Lions' zone. In this regard, UW's win Wednesday over Indiana was good practice. The Hoosiers used zone for much of the game, and the Badgers did a terrific job putting IU on its collective heels with offensive movement that worked poetically off of ball fakes.

"Well most zones are active, so they're moving," Close said. "So if you can get them to move a little out of position, that's where you can get some open passes. I think the better a faker you are — and there is some technique to that and some creativity — the better off you are going to be."

"The individual just has to make a read on a defender," Flowers said. "If a defender comes out hands in the air flying, you pump fake him. And then if he comes out with his hands low then just a ball fake and get him leaning one way, and then a pass over the opposite shoulder."

Wisconsin hopes those ball fakes and subsequent passes can free up shooters like Kammron Taylor (56 made 3s this season), Nixon (34) and Flowers (18), which in tun will free up the paint for Tucker and Co.

"You have to sell it," Nixon said of a ball fake. "You can't just jab here or jab there. You really have to sell it… Get your eyes wide and things like that. Get your body moving in a certain direction and, especially in a zone, guys will bite."

Then it is up to the recipient to convert on his opportunities.

"If the shots are not falling, then what good is a ball fake?" Nixon said. "If you are getting open shots and you are not hitting anything — you can't win any games if you don't hit shots."

Badger Nation prognostication

Geary Claxton is clearly PSU's driving force. The key, as the Badgers learned last month, is to make sure the rest of the Lions' roster stays quiet. Claxton, who averages 16.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in Big Ten play, is going to produce. UW does not have anyone on its roster who matches up well with him.

PSU is truly dangerous when Claxton's efforts help to free up perimeter shooters such as Ben Luber (46 percent 3-point shooting), Travis Parker (35) and Mike Walker (35). If the Lions can hit some shots from the outside — which they could not do in Madison — this will be a tight game start to finish.

Freshman forward Jamelle Cornley played poorly at Wisconsin; expect him to have a strong outing today.

Still, UW's size advantage will prove difficult for PSU to deal with, even considering its zone defense. And the Badgers head into Happy Valley with confidence after their dismantling of Indiana Wednesday.

The best thing that could happen for the Badgers? Kammron Taylor consistently finding his shot. While the rest of the team heated up against the Hoosiers, he shot a chilly 2 of 10.

Our pick: Wisconsin 67, Penn State 60.

What: Wisconsin (16-7 overall, 6-4 Big Ten) at Penn State (11-10, 3-7)
When: Saturday, Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. Central
Site: Bryce Jordan Center (15,261) in University Park, Pa.
Broadcasts: ESPN2 will televise the game live; the Wisconsin Radio Network will carry the game live (In Madison – WIBA-FM 101.5 and WTSO-AM 1070).
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 16-8, but PSU holds a 6-5 edge at home… UW has won six of the past eight meetings, including a 72-43 win in Madison on Jan. 25.

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