Wisconsin comes to Lincoln on Tuesday night to take on the Huskers. The Badgers are 20-3 with only one loss in Big Ten play. They’re a deep and talented team that might have what it takes to go a long ways in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, how many Big Ten teams can you say that about this season?
I got a hold of Dylan Paris of our Wisconsin SB Nation sister site Bucky’s 5th Quarter to give us the low down on what the Huskers will be facing on February 9th.
Corn Nation: The Badgers are sitting on top of the Big Ten right now with a 9-1 conference record. What were the expectations going into this season?
Dylan Paris: Most people expected the Badgers to compete for the Big Ten title and finish near the top, continuing their streak of consecutive top-4 Big Ten finishes to 16 years. Returning everybody from last season’s Sweet Sixteen, including four seniors in the starting lineup and the 2016 Big Ten freshman of the year, expectations were very high and I’d say they’ve met them so far.
CN: At 20-3, Wisconsin has had a pretty nice run this year with losses to Creighton, North Carolina, and Purdue. Which of these losses do you think Wisconsin should have won and why?
DP: The loss to North Carolina was in the final game of the Maui Invitational and they were throttled, so that one can be thrown out. It’s a tough choice between Creighton and Purdue, but the loss to Creighton could have been avoided. In their lone battle with the Purdue the Badgers stumbled into West Lafayette, struggled shooting all night and ran into the bulldozer that is Caleb Swanigan. Their trip to Creighton’s rowdy Omaha home was early, just the second game of the season, and the Badgers were completely unprepared for Creighton’s zone offense. The offense has corrected itself since - as witnessed by their dominant victory over Syracuse just two weeks later - specifically Nigel Hayes who has evolved into the maestro when it comes to breaking apart a zone. Ethan Happ put up only 6 points, but is playing at a level few expected since then. Recently the Badgers defense has played better as well.
CN: Wisconsin has a pretty deep roster that has given teams problems all year. Outside of guys like Ethan Happ, Bronson Koenig, and Nigel Hayes who else should Husker fans know about and why? What problems could they give the Huskers?
DP: The two other starters, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, are two experienced seniors. Brown is stuck in a shooting slump, but has flashed more aggression and athleticism lately. Showalter is the Badgers quintessential scrappy, hustle guy who can shut down the opposing team’s best guard or small forward, and he’s always a threat for a kick out three. He’ll surprise you with quickness and athleticism he parlays into steals, highlight dunks and chase down blocks. Don’t be surprised if he comes up with every single loose ball and draws a charge or two either. From the bench D’Mitrik Trice has been a pleasant surprise as a true freshman backup point guard that packs an offensive punch. He’s shooting 47% from three and completes a frightening offensive backcourt when Koenig switches to shooting guard. Kahlil Iverson is the only other consistently dependable bench player, and although he’s not a steady offensive contributor, he can do things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpUKuqXek78 .
CN: How far do you see the Badgers going this year and why?
DP: Their experience and leadership rival any other team in the nation. The offense is struggling from deep and scoring has been down the past few games, but the defense is reaching new heights. Hayes has established himself as an unheralded, switchy shutdown defender and Happ can stick with anybody in the post and prepare yourselves for a couple steals from the big man. Koenig is one of the most clutch players in the nation, and Showalter and Brown can be an X-factor in any game. However, I think their journey will end after reaching the Sweet Sixteen. The perception may be that the bench is deep and productive, but Gard is still looking for a reliable backup big man. Usually a staple of Badger teams in the past, the Badgers struggles from the free throw line continue with their two most frequent free throw shooters, Happ and Hayes, shooting 62% and 51% respectively. If the bench and free throw shooting improves this team could make the Elite Eight.
CN: This is Greg Gard’s second year for the Badgers. Has everyone been pretty happy with the transition from Bo Ryan? What do you think has improved under Gard’s tenure as the Badgers head coach?
DP: Badger fans love Coach Greg Gard. Although not as long winded as Bo Ryan notoriously was, Gard picked up the mantle and the program hasn’t missed a beat. His performance last year was incredible, bringing the team back from what was verging on a lost season and a probable absence from the big tournament. Gard still possesses some of the old school tenets of Bo Ryan - pulling a player if they commit a turnover or stupid foul - and he brought back Ryan’s vaunted swing offense - manipulating it more this year after using it to steady the ship last season. Gard’s tenure has shown he’s willing to extend the bench and give more kids a chance to earn their spot, rewarding players for hard work in practice. His years of experience on the recruiting trail are showing dividends as well. After landing D’Mitrik Trice and Aleem Ford in April of 2016, he’s secured commitments from multiple four-star players for 2017 and a stacked class for 2018. Overall, Gard has infused a youthfulness and energy that may have been fading in Bo Ryan prior to last season’s sudden retirement - which may have been influenced by the illness of Greg Gard’s father. Next year might be the big test for Gard when he has to replace 80% of the starting lineup.
CN: Okay, final question. What will happen in Lincoln on Thursday night and what will be the final score?
DP: It won’t be easy to notch the win in Nebraska, especially with the Badgers struggles from behind the arc, but Ethan Happ will be a handful for everybody Nebraska throws at him. I think these guys may still be harboring some anger from the 2016 Big Ten Tournament when Nebraska sent them packing earlier than expected. The game will be close through the first half, but I expect the Badgers to pull away down the stretch. 65-53 Wisconsin.
Thanks again for Dylan for taking time to answer our questions. If you want to know more about the Badgers then I suggest you check out www.buckys5thquarter.com for more information or follow them on twitter at @B5Q.