As Wisconsin and Iowa prepare to take to the Kohl Center hardwood Thursday night, they find themselves in surprisingly similar spots.
With identical 4-5 conference records – placing them in a tie for seventh – it’s a critical opportunity not only to clamber up the Big Ten ranks but also to continue riding their respective hot streaks before heading into the approaching conference tournament. Winners of three in a row – their longest such streak of the season – the Badgers have a chance at redemption after falling to the Hawkeyes two weeks ago.
Although Wisconsin is playing its best ball of the year, Iowa is surely not searching for confidence after handing conference-leader and 15th-ranked Purdue its first loss in Big Ten play.
While talk of the conference standings dominates conversation among fans, head coach Bobbie Kelsey is focusing on her own team’s improvement rather than constantly checking on the bigger picture.
“I looked at the [Big Ten] standings probably for the first time last night,” Kelsey said. “I just want to win the game in front of us … You want some people to help you, but you’ve got to handle your own business. You can’t be worried about what other folks are doing.”
The primary concern facing UW will be limiting the open shots for the Hawkeyes’ hot-handed guards. Powering the offense is junior guard Jaime Printy, who averages a team-high 17.3 points per contest and 35.8 percent from the field.
Complementing Printy and helping the Hawkeyes put up an average of 70 points per game is senior guard Kamille Wahlin, who also averages double figures and sinks 42 percent of her shots from the floor.
“Iowa’s a really good three-point shooting team,” sophomore guard Morgan Paige said. “Obviously Jaime Printy does the majority of their scoring, and Wahlin, those two on the perimeter. Then you have Morgan Johnson on the inside, so we really got to be able to play one-on-one containment and really guard the three-line, because they shoot it pretty well.”
As Paige pointed out, the Hawkeyes’ offensive production doesn’t end with their guards. At 6-foot-5, Johnson, a center who is second on the team with 14.1 points per game, will be one of the biggest post challenges of the year for Badger forwards Anya Covington, Ashley Thomas and Cassie Rochel to defend.
Currently leading the Big Ten with a 54.6 shooting percentage, Johnson will keep UW from focusing all its defensive attention solely on the perimeter.
To contain an Iowa team that isn’t afraid to fire the ball off from deep and quickly bury opponents when it finds a rhythm, Kelsey believes strong one-on-one defense is key to a home victory.
“Last time [against Iowa] we didn’t do a very good job of one-on-one defense,” Kelsey said. “You can’t help a lot off of this team because they have great three-point shooters. We didn’t do a very good job of keeping ourselves in front of the ball.”
After putting together a string of victories that included an upset Monday night over Michigan, the Badgers believe they are earning greater respect around the league.
Scoring 73 points per game (up from 59.1 on the year) over the recent streak and burying 42.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc (up from 34.2), UW is proving it can win when its new, fast-paced offense operates as planned.
“We’re not somebody to be just looked over like ‘Oh, that’s Wisconsin, that’s an easy game that we can win,'” Paige said. “Teams are starting to say ‘Hey, we really need to look out for this team … they’re going to catch you on your toes and they’re going to make you work for that win.’ I think we’re really starting to adjust and I see it more not as excitement but now our expectations are being raised.”
Although Kelsey & Co. aren’t surrendering their never-satisfied attitude, players and coaches alike are pleased with the notable progress Wisconsin has displayed in its most recent games. Stopping a veteran Iowa squad, even in an increasingly loud home environment, will be no simple task, but there’s a renewed sense of confidence around the program.
If the Badgers, who will also host student night during Thursday’s game, want to continue their late climb up the Big Ten standings, a home matchup with Iowa presents the perfect opportunity to do so before entering a brutal stretch that includes three top 25 opponents on the road over UW’s next four games.
“It’s just encouraging, going into the Big Ten tournament we know that we have that potential to play with everyone, and I [believe] that’s what these last few wins have given us the confidence of,” Thomas said.