MSU travels to Madison for a Sunday afternoon meeting with the Badgers at Kohl Center. It’s been a rocky year in Badgerland, with legendary coach Bo Ryan retiring in December, leaving the job to his top assistant and now interim head coach Greg Gard. UW is 9-9 overall and just 1-3 in the Big Ten, though many of the losses have been fairly competitive. More shocking than that overall record is the fact that Wisconsin has lost 5 times already at Kohl, a building in which they’ve been nearly unbeatable over the Ryan era.
BACKCOURT – Bronson Koenig is a 6’3″ junior from whom much was expected this season. He had been an extremely effective support player on the last two Badger Final Four teams and the thought was he’d be the latest UW player to move from that role into the spotlight seamlessly. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Koenig is second on the team in scoring at 13.6ppg but he hasn’t shot as well as expected, hitting 40/37% so far…so not bad, but not the elite kind of production some thought we’d see from him. More surprising is that he’s had only 43 assists to 32 turnovers, a ratio nearly unthinkable over the last 15 years of Badger basketball. Still, he’s one of the guys capable of taking a game over for stretches for UW. Alongside him is 6’2″ junior Zak Showalter, a former walk-on who has emerged as a starting off guard. He’s been relatively solid offensively, contributing better than 8ppg on 47/37% shooting.
Gard has expanded the Badger rotation a bit since taking over. Redshirt freshman Jordan Hill has seen his minutes expand, though he’s still struggling some with the nuances of running a college level offense (10 assists to 10 TOs as one example of this). Freshman Khalil Iverson is more of a power wing at this stage who has some athletic ability and toughness but hasn’t yet developed the kind of game from range they think he will eventually possess.
FRONTCOURT – If any Badger can be said to be having a disappointing season, it’s probably 6’7″ junior Nigel Hayes. On the one hand, 38/30% shooting is not what anyone had in mind for a guy who was such a force over the last two seasons for Wisconsin. However, it has to be said that the Badgers have put a ton on him and they also haven’t provided the kind of help which would make his life easier. They’ve had Hayes working on the perimeter a lot because he’s one of their top skill guys, but without enough additional threats teams have been able to focus on him and they’ve also completely taken away easy shots in the lane. All that said, he still leads UW in points (15.8) and assists (3.8) and is second in rebounding at 6.3 per game. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ was touted last season as the next great Wisconsin big man. He’s shown potential to be that but his performances haven’t been consistent. He’s third in scoring at 11.4 per game and tops on the boards at 8.1, and he’s shot well, but what he hasn’t yet shown is the kind of versatilty which has tended to mark the great Wisconsin bigs in recent years, and that’s made it harder for his team to get proper spacing. Still, he’s a guy who clearly has a bright future. Vitto Brown is a 6’8″ junior who has finally broken through into a consistent role on this team. He was supposedly a guy who could stretch the floor but he’s only hit 26% of his threes and has struggled away from the rim in general. He has given UW some decent rebounding, however.
Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen are a pair of 6’8″ freshmen who see time off the bench at the post positions. As with Happ, both were supposed to be guys who could stretch the floor but neither has shown consistency as of yet in that part of the game. Again, though, both guys are young and are the kind of players this program has tended to develop over four years into effective players. Right now, though, they’re not giving what this team could use in terms of addressing the congestion they too often face.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Energy – Period, point blank, MSU got out worked and out toughed against Iowa. Hard to believe it happened but it did, for the second time against that crew. They cannot give that kind of effort and win on the road, even against a lesser opponent. Wisconsin is a team in desperate need of a signature win, so I expect them to be loaded for bear. MSU has to match or hopefully surpass that.
2. Make Them Shoot – From distance, that is. Wisconsin isn’t a team with a bunch of great penetrators but they do get to the line for about 20 FTA per game, and guys like Koenig in particular do look to go off the dribble frequently. Now, that’s been tough to do as frequently as they might like because their lack of perimeter shooting has allowed teams to play off them and thus clog up penetration lanes. In general, I think MSU would be wise to make Wisconsin prove they can hit jumpers.
3. Boards – WIsconsin is a good rebounding group this season. It’s one of the few things they can point to as a real strength so far. MSU just hasn’t been good enough at either end in recent games, so improvement would be very much welcome. As we talk about frequently, when you are dealing with a team which struggles to score, the last thing you want to do is give them second chances.
4. Bryn – Don’t want to take this too far, since we’re talking about only 2 losses but it is true that in both of them, MSU had Bryn essentially taken out of the game by a combination of foul trouble and strong opposition defense. I think it’s clear that whatever the correlation, it’s true that MSU cannot be near its best offensively without Bryn playing a lot of minutes and hitting shots. When he’s doing that, the MSU offense can function at a high level overall because of the threat he poses, the defensive attention he occupies, and of course the points he scores.
5. Tempo – It’s always been nearly impossible to get into transition against Bo Ryan teams. I don’t expect Gard to be remarkably different but MSU does need to push and probe as much as they can. Easy baskets on the road are like found money.
Obviously, when you start thinking about conference title contention, top seed consideration, etc. MSU can’t afford to lose games like this. Traditionally this is one you put in the L column at the start of the season but the combination of Wisconsin not being what they’ve been and MSU having won 2 of their last 3 trips to Kohl should produce some confidence in this group that they can get the job done. No road game is easy in this league. You have to hope that MSU comes out a little bit pissed off and looking to play with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders.