Shooting three-point shots is something the Badgers’ offense has revolved around this season.
The problem is, with a reliance on the outside shot comes a larger risk for going cold from the field, compared to attacking the rim. And nowhere has that been more evident than the usual Wisconsin drought, as displayed last week against Ohio State when the Badgers went ice-cold for most of the second half.
With just half of the conference schedule remaining, Wisconsin is 169-for-487 from beyond the arc and, with a team percentage of 34 percent, they currently sit as the seventh-best three-point shooting team in the conference.
While the numbers themselves may not seem so gloomy, the amount of attempts compared to the rest of the league is a tad alarming, as only Illinois (currently 10th in the conference) and Northwestern (eighth) have attempted more threes than Wisconsin.
On the personnel level, one positive point for UW is the fact their scoring distribution is extremely balanced. Every player in the Badgers’ eight-man rotation averages at least five points, and each player is a legit threat to go off for double-digits any night.
Offensively, another bright spot has been the production of Sam Dekker. The true freshman has contributed just under nine points per night in only 22 minutes, primarily off the bench, while shooting 41 percent from three (fifth best in the conference).
If the Badgers hope to remain consistent on offense this season and score more than 60 points a night (the team is 2-7 in games it scores under that point total), they need to establish a stronger post game. Wisconsin showed its ability to score with its back to the basket against Illinois when Frank Kamnisky scored 19 points, but the group will need redshirt senior Jared Berggren to score more than his average 11.6 points per game.
And maybe make their free throws. After all, the group is ranked 335th in college basketball in free throw percentage.
No interview with a Wisconsin coach or player is complete without at least one mention of head coach Bo Ryan’s “defensive principles.”
Defense is the glue of Ryan’s teams, and while the Badgers’ defense has been far from perfect through the first half of the Big Ten season, they have generally survived their own offensive futility by forcing similarly poor shooting performances from their opponents. Wisconsin ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (allowing 55 points per game) and would find itself buried in the conference standings without such redemptive effort on defense.
However, UW’s own shooting percentage this year is less than three percentage points higher than the 40.5 percent conversion rate of its opponents, a number that ranks a disappointing 77th nationally.
The memorable defensive performances – namely holding then No. 1 Indiana to only 59 points, more than 20 points below its season average – are dampened by the sloppy play that allowed Iowa to hit 43.1 percent of their shots in the next game.
The team largely has its most veteran members to thank for holding this defense together. Fifth-year senior Jared Berggren has protected the paint with an agile frame that has swatted away 38 shots this season, third most in the Big Ten. Ryan Evans – despite his mystifying shot selection on the offensive end – often draws the assignment of the opponent’s best player and has done an admirable job containing players like Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
Junior guard Ben Brust, who likely draws more criticism for his defense than any other starter, has made some strides as a defender. Younger players like Dekker and Marshall are still learning the defensive ropes, but expect Ryan’s defense to only improve as March draws near.
Besides Ben Brust and Jared Berggren, few things have been constant in this Wisconsin starting lineup. At the beginning of the season UW started George Marshall at point guard, but after the redshirt freshman struggled with turnovers, Traevon Jackson replaced him following the Arkansas game – a game in which Marshall recorded one assist and three turnovers.
Jackson has brought toughness on defense but still remains shaky at times, especially on the offensive end, although his drive and tenacity to attack the hoop gives the Badgers an aspect to their game that has been severely lacking.
The confidence and coolness Jackson displays in tight games and big moments has made him a valuable asset to the team as a starter. As big shots in the Indiana and Minnesota games have shown, Jackson has no plans of giving back the starting job.
Evans has once again given Wisconsin a terrific rebounder and a mostly-solid defender, but his inconsistencies on the offensive end still prove to make him a frustrating player to watch. When he’s hitting his 15-footer, he extends defenses and blows by defenders with his athleticism. But when he’s not hitting his shots, he becomes almost non-existent as an option.
But don’t worry, Evans will keep shooting. He’s shot more times than anybody else on the team – making 96 of his 240 shot attempts and two of his 23 three pointers. Evans will need to become more consistent in his jumper if UW is to have any shot at a deep tournament run.
Badger fans hoping to peer into the future of Wisconsin basketball need to look no further than the chairs aligned along the sideline.
Here, where the likes of Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and George Marshall usually reside at tip-off, is where UW has received much-needed boosts in the game’s most critical moments this season.
And it is only fair to start with Dekker, the most exciting freshman to don the cardinal and white in recent memory. He has lived up to the sizable hype he hauled into the Kohl Center at the season’s start, acting as an energizer who shows no shortage of confidence when he steps onto the hardwood. With 8.8 points per game – fourth on the team behind three players who have started every game this year – Dekker attacks the rim and may indeed earn the starting nod before the season is over.
Berggren’s de-facto backup, Kaminsky, may not have progressed as quickly as Wisconsin fans hoped thus far in his sophomore campaign. Despite standing as the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-11, Kaminsky is not a traditional back-to-the-basket center but has proved valuable in his role as the modern big man – a player who can sink a three-pointer just as easily as he can dump in an offensive rebound under the hoop.
Marshall – who has earned six starts this season – is one of the most intriguing players on Wisconsin’s roster and offered a preview of his potential when he exploded for 20 points in a Jan. 19 loss at Iowa. With a lightning-fast first step, the redshirt freshman is still learning when to pull the trigger on three-pointers and developing as a ball-handler, but has provided an also-inexperienced Traevon Jackson with critical relief minutes this year.
Add in the occasional contributions of Zak Showalter and Zach Bohannon, and Bo Ryan has had no shortage of options to turn to when starters get into foul trouble or simply need a breather.
I don’t need to remind you the Big Ten is remarkably strong this year. It has been universally lauded for its depth and collection of nationally elite squads, and rightfully so.
Wisconsin’s grasp of a conference crown grows weaker by the day, and don’t expect them to bring home a regular season title or even finish as runner-up. Indiana and Michigan are simply too talented and too complete on both ends of the floor for the Badgers to slip in for the most unlikely of Big Ten titles.
That’s not to say Ryan and Co. won’t go down without a fight.
Expect Wisconsin to go 7-2 down the final stretch, dropping a close one at home to a superior Michigan team and falling on the road big to Michigan State. Minnesota will provide a tough challenge at Williams Arena, but the Badgers are smart enough to bounce back against a team that showed its vulnerability on a four-game skid earlier this year. The Buckeyes at home could really go either way and could have critical implications for where those two teams end up in the final standings.
If all plays out as planned, Wisconsin slides into a surprising No. 4 spot in the Big Ten behind Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State, beating out the Buckeyes by just a game thanks to a more forgiving schedule. Not too shabby for a team that lost one of its most critical players in Josh Gasser before the season even tipped off. – Ian McCue
When Wisconsin makes their threes, they can beat any team in the nation. With the best teams in the conference like Indiana and Michigan primarily run-and-gun three-point shooting teams, Wisconsin provides the perfect antitheses with its slow down, grind-it-out approach, frustrating teams when it hits a three with the shot clock dwindling down.
I still think Wisconsin has a legitimate chance to contend for the conference title if it heats up offensively, but with the deep-ball being an unforgiving aspect of the game to rely on – at least, compared to a dominant post game, which is rapidly disappearing through college basketball – I don’t think Wisconsin will be able to string together enough wins to make the run necessary to steal the conference crown.
This team has shown signs of growth throughout the season, but with road games remaining against Minnesota, Michigan State and a home date with Michigan this Saturday, I’m not sure Wisconsin will be able to escape the conference season without at least five losses.
I see the Badgers sliding into the four seed thanks to the continued emergence of Kaminsky and the solid play of Berggren. -Nick Korger