Heading into this year’s college basketball season, optimism was running high in Badgerland. After all, the team had all but one member of its starting five returning, Devin Harris was billed as the coaches’ choice for Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and, with Bo Ryan at the helm, Wisconsin had won two straight conference titles.
This all looked great on paper, and still does, but an area of concern that probably should have received more attention sooner than it has is the state of this year’s team on the defensive block.
Every loyal follower of the cardinal and white remembers or at least recognizes the name Marquis Estill.
If you’re in need of a refresher, he’s the Kentucky big man who torched Wisconsin’s frontline for a career-high 28 points on 12-for-18 shooting in the Regional Semifinals of last year’s NCAA tournament.
While Devin Harris and the UW backcourt were able to contain the Wildcats on the perimeter, the Badger frontline was simply unable to put the clamps down on Estill in the paint with any regular frequency.
Now, I realize this is only one game, it was a game played nearly a full year ago, and the makeup of the Badgers is a little different than it was in 2002-03.
But the same concern still lingers on.
In Wisconsin’s 59-71 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor Sunday, the Wolverines’ young but formidable frontline brutalized the Badgers on the block.
With UW forward Mike Wilkinson, who is without question the Badgers best defensive post player, strapped to the bench due to early foul trouble, the Wolverines quickly focused their offensive attack toward the interior of UW’s defense.
The maize and blue are typically a guard-oriented team when it comes to their offensive scoring load, but with Wilkinson on the bench and the Badgers behind on the scoreboard, Michigan could smell blood and rode their frontline to an upset victory.
So, the questions remain: Can this team’s big men put Wisconsin in a position to win a third-consecutive conference title? Will they be able to contain the nation’s elite frontcourts come tournament time? If Wilkinson gets in foul trouble, will Dave Mader and company be able to pull their weight at the defensive end?
The answers to these questions will unfold in just a few short weeks, and there is legitimate reason for concern.
In their defense, however, the Badger big men have had a number of things working against them this season–most notably the loss of Alando Tucker.
Even more than the importance his scoring and rebounding brought to the UW lineup, Tucker’s thick frame and freakish athleticism created an imposing presence for opposing big men on the block.
JUCO transfer Zach Morley has more than helped pick up Tucker’s void at the offensive end and could even be considered an upgrade in some respects, as he’s proven himself capable of taking defenders off the dribble and demonstrated an ability to knock down the long ball. But Morley just doesn’t have the body type to be as physical as Tucker on the defensive block.
Beyond Morley and Wilkinson, coach Ryan’s options in the frontcourt are rather limited.
Senior center Dave Mader has seen increased playing time as of late and actually regained his position in the starting lineup against Michigan. But he simply lacks the foot speed and body control to get the job done at the defensive end on a consistent basis. He’s provided a spark offensively at times. And at 6-foot-11, he does pose a threatening presence in the paint–at least on the surface. He has not, however, backed that presence up on the defensive block.
After Mader, the Badgers are left with just a single true-post player, sophomore forward Andreas Helmigk.
And Wisconsin’s Austrian big man has actually done a fairly decent job when he’s been given his opportunities this season, as he’s knocked down better than 43-percent of his field goal attempts and committed just 15 turnovers on the year. As far as his capabilities at the defensive end go, he may not have quite the size Mader possesses but he does have much greater lateral movement and superior overall mobility.
For whatever reason, though, his playing time has taken a serious cut in recent games.
So, when Wilkinson and/or Morley get in foul trouble, coach Ryan can either turn to Mader, who is slow, Helmigk, who he has seemingly lost faith in, or sophomore Ray Nixon, who, despite his large frame, has a game better suited for the perimeter.
This is the state of UW’s frontcourt on the defensive block, leaving the question: where is the beef?