|Who: Michigan (20-9, 10-6 B1G) at Wisconsin (18-10, 10-5 B1G)|
|Where: Kohl Center, Madison, WI|
|When: 6:00 p.m., February 28th, 2016|
|Radio: 950 AM, 102.9 FM|
Michigan’s trip to Madison didn’t look that intimidating in early January when the Badgers were 9-9, losers of three straight with defeats to Western Illinois, Milwaukee, Marquette and Northwestern. Now there’s only one, maybe two teams in the Big Ten playing better basketball than Wisconsin, which has won nine of its last ten games in a stretch that includes wins at Iowa and at Maryland to shake up the Big Ten title race.
In early January it would have been laughable to call Wisconsin a NCAA tournament team or even mention the bubble. Now the Badgers have essentially sewn up their bid with an incredible surge through the Big Ten. Greg Gard deserves plenty of credit for the turnaround and has Wisconsin resembling a traditional Bo Ryan team with a few twists.
Wisconsin has the Big Ten’s 7th best defense and 3rd best offense, outscoring conference opponents 1.07 to 1 point per possession in league games.
Wisconsin’s offense is fairly average and it relies on production at the free throw line to help it along. The Badgers tout a 41.5% free throw rate (FTA/FGA) and score 22.1% of their points at the stripe, the second most in the conference. Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are among the league’s best and are ranked 3rd and 4th in the conference in free throw rate.
Wisconsin is shooting just 48.1% on two-point attempts (8th), but 37.5% on threes (5th) for a 51 eFG%. The low two-point percentage is a product of an offense that relies on the mid-range jumper fairly extensively with just over of a third of UW’s shot attempts originating in the mid-range.
Defensively, Greg Gard’s Wisconsin is a bit different than a traditional Bo Ryan team. This Badger team forces turnovers as well as anyone in the Big Ten, forcing giveaways on one in every five possessions, a stat that Ryan’s teams rarely ranked better than the conference cellar. Wisconsin is allowing Big Ten foes to shoot 39.1% from three-point range, third worst in the Big Ten, but it allows the fewest three-point attempts. Big Ten opponents are attempting just 29% of their shots from three-point range against the Badgers.
Another sign that the Wisconsin defense is kicking into gear is that it allows the fewest assists per made field goal in the conference at 44.7%. Making tough, mid-range twos has always been necessary against the Badgers and this year should be no different as only Purdue has forced more mid-range twos than the Badgers among Big Ten teams.
Life hasn’t always been perfect for Nigel Hayes without Frank Kaminsky flanking him in the front court, but he’s been solid for the Badgers of late. Hayes has double-digit free throw attempts in four Big Ten games this season, draws 7 fouls per 40 minutes and attempts 63 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. He’s also Wisconsin’s best passer and those free throw numbers make up for his average — 41% on twos, 32% on threes — shooting numbers this season.
Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ drew plenty of during his redshirt year and he’s lived up to his billing. He leads the Big Ten in steal rate, shoots 52% on twos, is one of the Big Ten’s best rebounders and gets to the free throw line almost as often as Hayes. Happ is unique because he’s not a threat with his jumper, but can take the ball on the perimeter and use his versatility to get past or overpower defenders and get to the rim. Happ is also a smart offensive player, leading the Badgers in points cutting to the basket and points off of putbacks.
Happ and Hayes are joined by junior forward Vitto Brown in the front court. Brown is a plus offensive rebounder, but he’s also a legitimate stretch big man. He loves the mid-range jumper and can step out to three-point range (34% on 32 B1G att.) on occasion. His shot chart proves how effective he can be in the mid-range.
Bronson Koenig is a good pick-and-roll offensive player and while his numbers in the ball screen game have regressed a bit without Frank Kaminsky, he’s still a big time shot maker. He’s shooting 43% on threes in league play, but similar to Derrick Walton he struggles to finish inside and makes just 36% of his twos.
Zak Showalter provides athleticism and defense at the other guard spot. Showalter does a great job of getting to the free throw line and leads the conference in eFG% at 64.6%, making 69% of his twos and 41% of his threes in league play. Showalter isn’t a primary option in the Badger offense, but when the ball comes to him he’ll make his attempts.
The big story under Greg Gard has been that he’s unleashed Wisconsin’s young bench. Jordan Hill, Khalil Iverson, Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas have all played critical roles at times for the Badgers during their turnaround.
- Don’t foul: Michigan avoids fouling as well as anyone in the Big Ten and Wisconsin gets to the free throw line as well as anyone in the conference. Something has to give and in a matchup like this that could be the difference. Of course, keeping the Badgers off the free throw line at the Kohl Center tends to be a difficult achievement.
- Front court matchups: Wisconsin’s front court matchups could give Michigan some headaches. Hayes and Happ are both versatile post threats that can also face-up. Brown provides some size and rebounding inside. All three players are also probably effective enough to guard their counterparts in Michigan’s lineup. The Wolverines have to figure out what to do with Duncan Robinson, Zak Irvin and Mark Donnal to deal with this group and I’m not sure there’s a clean answer.
- Iso attack: Wisconsin’s defense has been susceptible to the isolation drive, ranked in just the 15th percentile nationally, which makes this a prime opportunity for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The Badgers are better defensively in the pick and roll game (65th percentile), but Bronson Koenig has been a frequently picked on target this season.
KenPom likes Wisconsin by a final score of 70-64, giving Michigan just a 27% chance at a road upset.