These aren’t your grandpa’s Badgers.
The phrase has been gaining steam with the national media when they describe the current version of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, which has soared up the rankings as high as No. 3 in the AP and Coaches poll. And they are right; this team is closer to your great-grandpa’s Badgers.
A combination of young athleticism, savvy veterans in the backcourt and scorers at every position has yielded production not seen for nearly 100 years at Wisconsin.
With a blowout win over then-ranked No. 23 Illinois at home Jan. 8, the Badgers improved to 16-0, breaking the program record for best start to a season that has been standing since 1914 and shattering head coach Bo Ryan’s previous record of six consecutive wins to start a season.
While Wisconsin has been no stranger to success under the tutelage of Ryan, the Badgers have been winning in a somewhat different fashion than the fans are accustomed to.
Under Ryan, Wisconsin is notorious for lulling its opponent to sleep with a ball control offense that would bring the shot clock down to single digits on a regular basis. Although this offensive philosophy isn’t necessarily appealing to the viewing audience, it is effective, allowing the Badgers to rely on strong defense and forcing their opponent into mistakes.
But this season, with capable scorers at every position on the court, Ryan has given his offense the green light to pull the trigger on open looks even when 20-plus seconds is left on the shot clock.
“He’s going to adapt to his personnel and does a good job with them,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “They’ve got guys that can do multiple things offensively well. They have good spacing. I think some of their guys have certainly gotten better, which is pretty evident watching film.”
The result: Wisconsin averages 76.1 points per game—11.1 points higher than last season’s 65-point average—and even topped the century mark with 103 points against North Dakota for the first time since 1995.
Although the Wisconsin attack has picked up the pace and is scoring more than ever before, it has not sacrificed efficiency. In fact, this year’s team has the highest points per possession average (1.22) of any in the Bo Ryan era and is tied with Michigan for the best in the Big Ten.
Ryan’s team still takes its fair share of attempts from beyond the three-point arc—third in the Big Ten with 360 attempts—but are cashing in more than any other team in the Big Ten hitting a conference-leading 39.2 percent of its shots from deep, improving 6 percent from last season.
Coupled with their conference-best accuracy from downtown, the Badgers rank second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 47.6 percent, behind only Michigan.
Wisconsin’s spike in offensive production can be attributed not only to players on the court, but also to Ryan’s philosophy of taking the best shot, no matter how much time is on the shot clock.
“It depends on how easy of looks you’re getting and how fast you’re getting down the floor,” Ryan said. “And when [open looks] present themselves, you don’t tell the players ‘no, don’t take that shot’. Those are good shots…I think a lot of (the playing style) would depend on what kind of shots you’re getting. When you’re shooting around 60 percent and you’re getting good early looks (then the score is going to be high).”
Spreading the wealth
After his team’s 95-70 loss at the hands of Wisconsin, Groce called the Badgers’ offense “a monster” to defend because of their ability to have five capable scorers on the court at once.
Unlike in years past with players like Jordan Taylor or Jon Leuer, Wisconsin doesn’t rely on the offensive production of just one or two players. It gets production out of every player on the court.
Without a go-to option offensively, a different player can lead the Badgers in scoring on any given night. Wisconsin has had six different players lead the team in scoring this season and has had four or more players in double digits in 12 games.
“When you play them, they are so explosive offensively,” Groce said. “They play eight guys a lot, all eight of them have scored in double figures at least at some point this year and seven of them shoot threes.”
With the emergence of Frank Kaminsky — who leads the team in three-point percentage and gives Wisconsin an option in paint — newcomers Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes and the return of Josh Gasser after a knee injury last season, the Badgers have become a multidimensional threat offensively.
This depth allows the Badgers to score in a variety of ways, whether it be from deep, mid-range or in the paint, meaning they can adapt to what the defense is giving them and still produce at a high rate.
“Shots aren’t going to fall every game and it’s nice to have a guy like Frank who you can get the ball to and can score it well,” Gasser said. “Sometimes when shots aren’t falling, we’ll just call a play and get him the ball in the post and make plays that way. The good way to score is to get to the free throw line, get the ball as close to the basket as you can and hope that he’ll make a play and we’ve been pretty successful with that so far.”
Questions in the paint
What Indiana exposed in Wisconsin’ first loss is its struggles to defend the lane.
Since the Badgers regularly have three guards on the floor at a time, they sacrifice size, which leaves more space for opponents to work in the paint.
Of Wisconsin’s 17 games this season, it has been outscored in the paint 11 times, out-rebounded on the offensive glass eight times and out-rebounded in three of its four Big Ten matchups.
In their only loss of the season, the Badgers allowed the Hoosiers 52 points in the paint and 33 total rebounds.
“We gave up a lot of layups and dunks and stuff in transition,” Ben Brust said after the loss to the Hoosiers. “That’s stuff that we have to take away if we are going to be successful.”
Though Wisconsin was knocked off the list of unbeaten teams, it still is off to the best start in program. With a favorable conference schedule that keeps the Badgers from traveling to Michigan State or Ohio State, they could be on their way to one of the most successful seasons in program history. But in typical Wisconsin fashion, the team is not going to get caught up in the hype and will continue to work toward something not even your great-grandpa’s Badgers accomplished.
“There was a quote we were talking about, a John Wooden quote, of ‘Don’t get caught up in the praise or criticism,’” Hayes said. “So that is what we are trying to do right now. Don’t get too high on ourselves. Make sure that we stay focused because we know that there are bigger goals down the road that we want to reach.”