By no means is Wisconsin basketball having a bad season. At 21-4, they are off to one of their best starts in program history.
The Badgers are also sitting at 11th in the AP Poll and are projected to be a five seed in most NCAA Tournament mock brackets. But despite all that, the feeling that the team is not performing to their capabilities is warranted.
The Badgers returned nearly 100 percent of their minutes and scoring from a team that won 11 out of their last 13 regular season games and went to the Sweet 16 last season. So naturally, expectations coming into this season were sky-high, and Wisconsin fans had their eyes set on another trip to the Final Four.
But despite Wisconsin’s record, they have not looked the part of a Final Four contender. In their only three games against top-25 teams, the Badgers were outscored by a total of 38 points. They also have struggled over the last five games, dropping a home game against a depleted Northwestern squad, barely being an even more depleted Indiana team, and needing overtime to beat bottom feeders Rutgers and Nebraska.
This isn’t meant to sound negative. As I said before, Wisconsin is having a good season. No matter how down the conference is, being at the top of the Big Ten standings is always something to be proud of. But if this team wants to reach the Final Four or win a national championship, there are a few areas they need to improve in.
Right now, Wisconsin’s biggest problem on offense is spacing. The lane is always clogged and congested, and there are always multiple players standing near each other on the perimeter. That means less space for Wisconsin’s post players and drivers.
Some of that can’t be fixed due to the personnel. This is the rare Wisconsin team that has a lot of players that struggle from the perimeter. Ethan Happ has never attempted a three-pointer, and Khalil Iverson, Nigel Hayes, and Charles Thomas aren’t exactly sharp shooters. So some of the congestion is unavoidable. But some of it isn’t. And that needs to be fixed if Wisconsin wants to bring it’s offensive efficiency up from it’s current KenPom ranking of 36th.
Attacking Double Teams
Creighton, Nebraska, and Northwestern taught the country that in order to shut down Wisconsin, all you have to do is double-team the post. Nigel Hayes is a great passer out of double-teams, but Ethan Happ is still learning. He isn’t turning the ball over because of double-teams, but he isn’t able to produce nearly as much.
He also is slow in getting the ball to the right places in order to take advantage of the five-on-four situation. Part of that has to do with spacing, which again, must be improved. If Wisconsin wants to advance in the tournament, they are going to need to learn how to take advantage of double-teams.
Wisconsin teams are usually among the best in the country in turnover rate. Their two final four teams certainly were. But this season, Wisconsin has been particularly sloppy with the ball. Given their slow and plodding tempo, that is inexcusable. They are currently 74th in the country in turnover rate, which isn’t horrible, but also isn’t up to usual Wisconsin standards.
Playing stellar transition defense has been one of Wisconsin’s trademarks since Bo Ryan took over, but there have been some lapses this season. Once again, it isn’t bad, and no team has really lit them up in transition. But Wisconsin has been losing track of their guys and giving up open three-point looks or coast-to-coast drives in transition.
Nice feed from Green. pic.twitter.com/4qHr8LNhvm
— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) February 5, 2017
Once Wisconsin’s defense sets up, they are great, but teams like UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona won’t give them that chance.
Free Throw Shooting
I considered not putting this one in here because there isn’t much they can do about this. Obviously Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes are working as hard as they can to improve their performance from the charity strike. But it just needs to happen faster. The Badgers are currently one of the worst free throw shooting teams in college basketball.
It will cost them a game at some point if they can’t improve. It’s especially important for Ethan Happ, because it has gotten to the point where he is on the bench late in games for fear of the “Hack-a-Happ” strategy.
Last 3 #Badgers on court tonight: Happ, Hayes and Trice. Happ FT after FT after FT. Same thing every day.
— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) February 15, 2017
Shot Selection/Ball Movement/Patience
It doesn’t take a basketball expert to know the Badgers are at their best when they move the ball and get Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes touches in the post. When there’s a lot of individual dribbling and perimeter isolation, Wisconsin’s offense isn’t nearly as effective.
Consistency from Bench Players
Coming into the season, this was expected to be one of Wisconsin’s deepest benches ever. And to an extent, it is, because there are a lot of players that could contribute each game. There are seven players on the Wisconsin bench that have contributed meaningful minutes this season. But none of them have been even remotely consistent.
Right now, Wisconsin is going through a shooting slump. It happens all the time in college basketball, especially around this time of year. Over their last five games, Wisconsin has gone 29/106 from beyond the arc. That is a steep drop from their usual 35% three-point shooting percentage. All teams go through slumps like these, including the 2013-14 Wisconsin Basketball team that reached the Final Four. Water will find its level.
serious question is wisconsin drunk? pic.twitter.com/aHIG1toQ3F
— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) February 10, 2017
This might be the most important thing. Wisconsin is obviously very banged up right now. Vitto Brown has been dealing with a nagging leg injury for a while. Bronson Koenig suffered a calf injury against Penn State, and the next game, Wisconsin’s offensive woes started. In addition to looking much slower, Koenig has only shot 25.4% from the field and 22.6% from three-point range since the injury. It might not be a bad idea to rest Koenig for a week or two to get him healthy for the tournament. The Badgers won’t be able to reach their full potential without him at 100%.