Nebraska heads out of state this Wednesday to take on the Wisconsin Badgers. We wanted to get a better understanding of this team so we asked Phil Mitten over at Bucky's 5th Quarter to give us an update and find out what makes them tick.
Wisconsin had one heck of a season last year. It was one thing to go through the regular season like you did but another to make it to the National Championship game. With that said, there were a lot of guys who either graduated or left the team in the offseason. What were the expectations going into this year and how do you feel those expectations have turned out?
We expected a big drop off in which it would be really tough to finish in the top four of the conference yet again. With Bo Ryan, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig returning, however, making the NCAA tournament was still an expectation. Those early season losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee (as well as how poorly the Badgers played in wins over Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Green Bay) certainly made the goal harder to reach. So being back in the bubble conversation even feels like a small victory already.
The season started with some pretty tough losses and the non conference start was a little underwhelming. Right now the Badgers are on a five game winning streak that has brought wins over #4 Michigan State and #19 Purdue. What has happened on the team that might have brought this turnaround?
Probably the most important thing was that Nigel Hayes got back to basics. He stopped firing off silly jump shots and got back to the block more often once he accepted that most teams couldn’t stop him without sending a double team. With Hayes leading the charge, the Badgers have blazed a trail to the free throw line by getting more aggressive. Koenig has been probing the defense more confidently of late. It’s hard to quantify how much of that is due to Greg Gard assuming the head coaching duties, but there’s no doubt that Gard expanded the bench’s role and that has been as crucial as anything. Bo Ryan wasn’t giving certain guys the time of day, but Wisconsin would not have beaten Ohio State without the contributions of Jordan Hill and Alex Illikainen.
Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have been huge assets to the team this year. Who on the team should Husker fans keep an eye on that they may not know about?
Well, if you aren’t aware of redshirt freshman Ethan Happ by now, let me resolve that problem for you. At a sinewy 6’9", he’s not a traditional Wisconsin stretch-four because his jump shot is terrible. What Happ is great at is rebounding (8.4 per game) and getting shots up around the hoop thanks to his footwork. As he’s gotten better at finishing inside and making his free throws, he’s become a legitimate third scoring option for Wisconsin. Oh, and Happ also leads the league in steals (2.1 per game) during Big Ten play.
Wisconsin is coming up against a pretty strong slate of teams in the next few weeks. They go to Maryland, Michigan State, and Iowa and have Michigan on the road. What do the Badgers need to do to make it to the NCAA Tournament?
Win five to finish at 11-7 in the Big Ten and it’s a no brainer. Wisconsin might have a top 15 SOS at that point. There are multiple scenarios that work with so many games left though. The Badgers cannot lose to Minnesota or Illinois in any of those scenarios, but any other combination while going 4-4 probably gets them in there too -- as long as they don’t suffer a bad first-round loss in the conference tourney either. It’s not likely UW wins the Big Ten tournament, so finishing .500 in the regular season isn’t good enough.
Greg Gard has come in for a retired Bo Ryan. What are your thoughts on the transition and what is the future with him and the team after the season is over with? Has his tenure at Wisconsin merited him a full contract?
The way it all went down wasn’t ideal, yet I like being able to see Gard audition for the job. And all things considered, he’s done a very good job. So much so that I see him being retained by Wisconsin at the conclusion of the season. I still think AD Barry Alvarez will give Virginia’s Tony Bennett one last pitch to come home, but Gard should be able to sew this up with a tournament berth.
Okay, prediction time. What do you think will happen during the game and what will the final score be?
These teams don’t look too much different on paper actually. Without Shields, I think there will be too much pressure on Andrew White to drive the Nebraska offense, however. Plus, Hayes is the best player on the court and I think Wisconsin can hold a slim lead and put it away at the line. Let’s go 69-62, Badgers.