As late as Monday morning, we still believed the No. 13 University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team (3-1) would be taking on No. 25 Louisville (4-0) Wednesday evening as part of the heralded Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Instead, we are pleasantly surprised with an afternoon matchup against Rhode Island (3-2) thanks to COVID-19 issues in Louisville’s program.
The contest will work as an added bonus for the Badgers, bolstering their non-conference schedule while Louisville gets set for a later date, hopefully as soon as this weekend.
Rhode Island will easily be the best team the Badgers have welcomed to the Kohl Center thus far. The Rams are led by senior do-it-all point guard Fatts Russell.
Russell has been seeing quality minutes since his freshman campaign in 2017-18, the last year the Rams made the NCAA Tournament. Russell was a key contributor in Rhode Island’s first round victory over Trae Young-led Oklahoma, pouring in 15 points on three three-pointers and adding three assists in 21 minutes off the bench.
Russell is the only remaining contributor from that tourney team, and his leadership and tenacity is contagious. This year, Russell is averaging 17.6 points, 3.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.
Russell is the highest scorer coming into the game from either side and, because of his volume, will likely lead all scorers when the game is finished.
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If anyone can limit Russell, however, it’s Badger point guard D’Mitrik Trice. No college basketball player has played more games than Trice. And following a devastating loss to an archrival, I wouldn’t want anything to do with Trice or his senior brothers.
Wisconsin has a chance Wednesday to quickly erase the Marquette loss and look ahead to a daunting schedule with confidence.
The Marquette loss should light a fire under Gard and his senior-laden squad. If anything, it could provide the Badgers with a much needed sense of urgency pre-conference play. Wisconsin will have to set the tone early and come out like their hair is on fire.
Rhode Island dropped their first two games of the season in the 2K Empire Classic to Arizona State and Boston College. Both games were tightly congested throughout and both margins came within six points.
Since then, Rhode Island has won three straight. Their most recent win coming against a respected program in Seton Hall, by double digits. If you think the Rams will lay down before the Badgers, you are sorely mistaken.
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Behind Russell, the Rams have enjoyed high-profile transfers in Jalen Carey (Syracuse) and the Mitchell twins (Maryland). Senior sharpshooter Jeremy Shepard will need to be an area of focus for the Badgers defense as he is shooting 46% from beyond the arc on the young season.
Junior forward Antwan Walker provides a physical presence down low, putting up 10.7 points on 69% shooting and a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game. His 230-pound frame is imposing, but his 6’7 height should favor Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter on the boards.
The key to this game will ultimately be the tempo. This Badger team plays at a notoriously slow pace while the Rams like to push the ball at all times.
In three of Rhode Island’s five games, the Rams have put up 84+ points. If the Badgers can control the ball, slow the game down and limit transition points, they should be able to take care of the Rams with relative ease.
The Badgers will, of course, need to shoot it better than they did against Marquette if they want to win, starting with Brad Davison. Davison failed to make a field goal against Marquette and it proved costly.
He and his teammates will need to be more productive and efficient from deep moving forward if the Badgers plan on contending for a Big Ten title and beyond.
Wisconsin is 2-0 all time against Rhode Island, with their most recent meeting coming in 1999. The game will air on Big Ten Network, live from the Kohl Center in Madison 3:30 p.m. CT.