Entering this season, expectations for Wisconsin basketball were sky-high. After returning every single member of their rotation from the previous season’s Sweet 16 run, the assumption was that this team would contend for the Big Ten Title, a Final Four berth and a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
So far, they are meeting those expectations. While they don’t have a marquee win yet, they also have no remotely bad losses, giving them a 20-3 record and two-game cushion in the Big Ten title race. The performance and expectations of the team have led many to compare them to the 2014-15 squad that went 36-4 and made it to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. Curious to see how the two teams stacked up, I compared them to each other.
The current Wisconsin Basketball team is averaging 74.6 points per game, which is actually higher than the 2014-15 team, which averaged only 71.9 points per game. In fact, Wisconsin is currently scoring more points per game than in any season since 1993-1994. But don’t let the stats fool you. The 2014-15 team was vastly superior on offense. Overall scoring is way up as a whole in college basketball, and the 2014-15 had to deal with a 35 second shot clock.
The 2014-15 team still holds the record for the most efficient offense in the KenPom era. All five of their starters were good three-point shooters, with the worst of them being Sam Dekker at 33%. They also played around Frank Kaminsky, who is one of the most efficient shooting big men in college basketball history. To make matters worse for opponents, Wisconsin was exceptional from the free throw line (76 percent) and took great care of the ball, resulting in the top offensive turnover percentage in the country.
This current Wisconsin Basketball team isn’t bad offensively by any means. They rank 30th in the country in KenPom offensive efficiency, which is certainly respectable. They just aren’t close to the 2014-15 team. One reason for that is that they aren’t as good from beyond the arc. They also don’t have the same spacing. Ethan Happ is tremendous. Nobody’s denying that, and when it’s all said and done, he may be considered the greatest Badger ever. But having a 7-footer that hit a prolific percentage of his three-pointers in Frank Kaminsky resulted in great floor spacing for the Badgers. Happ, who struggles outside the paint, clogs the lane for drivers and other post players.
The third reason why this version of the Badgers aren’t nearly as good offensively is their free throw shooting and sloppiness with the ball. Wisconsin’s free throw shooting is their Achilles heel, and will likely cost them a game or two at some point in the season. Every game, they leave tons of free points at the line, as they only connect on 66% of their free throws, good for 279th in the country. Unfortunately, that problem doesn’t seem to be fixable. Happ and Nigel Hayes draw the most fouls on the team by a long shot, but both struggle from the line.
Turnovers on the other hand, can be fixed. Wisconsin turns it over on roughly 17.2% of their positions. For the average team, that is a great rate. It ranks in the top-70 nationally. But for a team with Final Fours goals, especially one that has made ball security a staple of their program for the last decade, that needs to get better.
As good as the 2014-15 Badgers were, they didn’t defend very well…for UW standards. They only ranked 38th in the country in KenPom defensive efficiency. That was often masked by their outstanding offense, but at times, like in the national championship game, it really hurt them.
This Wisconsin team is much better defensively. They ranked seventh in the country in KenPom defensive efficiency, and it is easy to see why. The Badgers have good size at every position except shooting guard, but Zak Showalter’s athleticism and energy more than make up for that. Forward Nigel Hayes is one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big Ten. He is long, agile, and versatile enough to guard both post players and wings. Ethan Happ ranks second in the Big Ten in steals and 10th in blocks, while Showalter is fourth in steals.
The Badgers don’t lose their defensive intensity when they go to the bench either. Guards Jordan Hill and Brevin Pritzl are extremely quick and move their feet very well. Forward Charlie Thomas has the size to bang with any big man in the country. Khalil Iverson is a future Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. His close-out ability is breathtaking.
In Big Ten play, Wisconsin’s outstanding team defense has won them a lot of games even when their shots weren’t falling. While the 2014-15 team relied on their offensive ability, the current team gets things done on defense.
Both the current Wisconsin Basketball team and the 2014-15 were excellent defensive rebounding teams. The 2014-15 was the second best team in the country on the defensive glass, while the current one sits at 10th. However, on the offensive glass, the current Wisconsin team has the clear advantage. They rank in the top 10 in the country in offensive rebound rate, while the 2014-15 team barely cracked the top 60.
That is a double-edge sword though. The 2014-15 team wasn’t great on the offensive glass because they didn’t care to be. Instead, they got back on defense and prevented transition looks. The current Wisconsin team surrenders a little bit of that transition defense prowess in exchange for some second chances.
Both teams are/were extremely talented, and consist of the same general makeup. Bronson Koenig was the point guard for most of the 2014-15 season, and is now an improved version of himself on this team. The same goes for Nigel Hayes. Despite the fact that his shooting is worse, he is more experienced, more consistent, a better passer, and a much better defender than he used to be.
Both teams are also led by a star center. Happ can’t shoot like Kaminsky could, but Kaminsky couldn’t defend and handle the ball like Happ can. In fact, you could argue that Happ is just as, if not more important to his team than Kaminsky was to the 2014-15 Badgers. Happ leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks during Big Ten play, and he’s a contender to be a first-team All-American, so he’s not that far off from Kaminsky.
The two teams also have a great glue playing shooting guard. Showalter plays with great energy, can defend, and makes big plays, but it is just hard to place him on the same level as Gasser. Gasser was just on a different level as a glue guy. He got every single loose ball. Literally, every single one. He also shot better and made less “boneheaded” plays than Showy. But Showalter is still a great glue guy.
The biggest difference in the starting lineup comes from Sam Dekker vs Vitto Brown. Yeah, that’s not even a contest.
The 2014-15 team only had thee regular bench players. Duje Dukan, Bronson Koenig/Traevon Jackson, and Zak Showalter. But they were extremely quality players. Dukan was a great offensive weapon off the bench, Koenig went on to be a reliable starter, and Showalter was a terrific spark plug.
Meanwhile, this current Wisconsin teams has up to seven guys that could see time off the bench. Jordan Hill, D’Mitrik Trice, Khalil Iverson, Charles Thomas, Alex Illikainen, Brevin Pritzl, and Aaron Moesch have all seen playing time in close games this season. However, none of the seven are very consistent, and their performance fluctuates by a game-to-game basis. So while this team is “deeper”, the 2014-15 team had more reliable substitutes.
This current Wisconsin team is very good. They can certainly make the Final Four. But they aren’t as good as the 2014-15 Badgers team. However, that isn’t a fair bar. The Wisconsin program may never see a team as good as that one again. But that doesn’t mean this team isn’t good enough to achieve all the same goals.
A better comparison for this current Wisconsin team might actually be the 2011-12 Wisconsin Basketball team. That team had an overall KenPom ranking of 8th, a defensive efficiency ranking of 7th, and an offensive efficiency ranking of 25th. This current team is 11th, 7th, and 30th respectively. While it isn’t as sexy as being compared to the 2014-15 team, the 2011-12 team was pretty good too. They earned a four-seed and were one point away from beating one-seeded Syracuse in the Elite Eight.