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The Starting 5: Wisconsin vs. Rutgers basketball preview

Wisconsin makes a trip to a house of horrors in Piscataway. Can they come away victorious against Rutgers?

What’s not to like about a five-game win streak and a trip to Rutgers? Oh, wait…that last part, that’s right.

For whatever reason, trips to Piscataway, NJ have not been fun for the Badgers. There have been big injuries and closer-than-they-should’ve-been games.

But, as with everything with this 2017-18 team perhaps it will be the unexpected that happens? Let’s take a look at how the Badgers (9-7, 2-1 B1G) and the Scarlet Knights (10-6, 0-3 B1G) match up on Friday night.

Here is tonight’s starting 5 for the game that tips at 6pm CT and will be seen on ESPN.

1. Can the Road Continue to be Kind to Badgers Under Gard?

Greg Gard has done what few coaches in the Big Ten have been able to do — figure out how to win on the road. The Big Ten is notoriously difficult on road teams, but Gard has done well in that regard so far in his career. Wisconsin is 10-8 in Big Ten road games under his leadership, which is the second-best mark of any team in the Big Ten over Gard’s span in the conference. Only Maryland’s 12-7 record is better on the road in conference play.

Wisconsin of 2017-18 on the road has been a bit different, but so is playing at the RAC, where the Badgers are 1-1 against Rutgers since they joined the Big Ten. Can Gard’s magic work on the road or will a different environment in New Jersey trip up the Badgers?

2. Happ Feasts on Rutgers

No team has been as willing to let Ethan Happ do his best work than Rutgers has over his career. All he’s done is average a whole 19.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game against the Scarlet Knights. That includes dropping 32 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on Rutgers last season alone.

Combine that with the fact that Happ had his best all-around performance just this past Tuesday in a 10-point win against Indiana and this could be a fun night for the All-American. Wisconsin’s offense clearly revolves around Happ in some way, shape or form — whether it is him pounding the ball down low or drawing double teams and kicking the ball to open players or taking fellow big men off the dribble, Happ has finally taken the Badgers offense on his back and gotten positive results.

Can Happ continue the trend of big nights against the Scarlet Knights?

3. Got Your Six

While Happ has gotten off to a great start to 2018, the most important part is that the rest of his teammates are helping out a lot more than they were in the 2017 portion of the season. Happ doesn’t have to do it all on his own anymore, and ironically that is leading to him being able to dominate even more.

Aleem Ford has suddenly become a consistent double-digit scorer, Brad Davison does a bit of everything and even the walk-on players who are playing are finding a way to contribute in smaller ways. Since that Marquette loss, the rest of the team has begun to round in to form and get Happ’s back on both ends of the court.

Now, can Charlie Thomas please find some touch around the rim on offense to complete the rise of UW’s offense? Can the form of Ford and others continue on the road? If so, Wisconsin could find themselves comfortably ahead in this game.

4. Offensive Boards

If there is one area that could trouble the Badgers tonight, it is in the area of keeping Rutgers off the glass. While not much has been looking up for the Scarlet Knights during their current six-game losing streak, a potential advantage exists in this matchup thanks to a long and athletic front line.

It’s been an advantage all season long, with Rutgers owing 15.1 offensive rebounds per game alone. That number is third nationally, and runs counter to Wisconsin’s defensive strength — not allowing offensive rebounds. UW is allowing opponents just 6.3 offensive rebounds per game which is ninth in the country. Something is going to give tonight.

Wisconsin hasn’t played great defense all season long overall, so can they keep Rutgers from getting opportunities at second-chance points?

5. Please Don’t Bore Us

Along those lines of UW’s defensive effort, somehow, despite the perception, UW ranks inside the top 35 in scoring defense on the year. So do the Scarlet Knights.

For those of you who are a fan of high-scoring basketball, this may not be your game.

That means it could be a struggle to be entertained and a struggle to top 60 points from both of these teams. Let’s see if that’s to UW’s advantage or not.

Prediction:

Wisconsin 62, Rutgers 55

Something in me just doesn’t trust trips to New Jersey for the Badgers. However, this is going to be another grind-it-out victory for UW. Look for Happ to get going early and that lead to a big lead for the Wisconsin. The problem is that also means watch for Rutgers to make a nice second half run while UW’s defense relaxes a bit. It leads to a closer than expected win, but a sixth straight win for the Badgers nonetheless.

That sets up an interesting matchup with Nebraska on Tuesday night to say the least..if I’m right.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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