In what was supposed to be a “down year” in Madison, coach Bo Ryan has the No. 19 Badgers two games out of first place in the conference standings with less than a month left.
Given Wisconsin’s soft schedule over the final five remaining games, it seems very likely that Ryan's team will finish among the top 4 in the Big Ten for the 12th-consecutive season, a streak few thought possible heading into this year's campaign.
Wisconsin’s season started ominously as PG Josh Gasser tore his ACL in the preseason and the Badgers lost four of their first 10 nonconference games.
But since then, the PG position has stabilized under sophomore Traevon Jackson, and Wisconsin has rode its outside shooting to a 12-4 record, including wins over Indiana, Michigan and a recent thumping of Ohio State at the Kohl Center.
Typical of a Ryan team, this year’s version is excellent at taking care of the basketball (9.8 turnovers per game, second in B1G) and their defense has been exceptional. The Badgers yield just 56.2 points per game in conference play, five points less than Ohio State, the second-best defensive team in the Big Ten.
ESPN's John Gasaway tweeted this after the Badgers' 71-49 win over Ohio State on Sunday:
With such efficient defense and so few miscues, what does a team need to do to beat Wisconsin?
Defend the Three-Point Line
The Badgers don’t excel from the perimeter (34 percent) but because of their reliance on the deep ball, teams would be wise to press up around the arc. Their 93 three-pointers within conference play trails only Michigan (98) and Indiana (97), via Big Ten.
Watch the highlight from Wisconsin's win over Minnesota on January 26, where four different players knocked down three-pointers for the Badgers.
Wisconsin has seven players with at least 10 three-pointers this season, one of only two Big Ten teams (Northwestern) with such distribution. Because the Badgers trust that their defense will never put them in an insurmountable hole, Ryan's squad can shoot liberally from beyond the arc.
On top of that, Wisconsin’s frontcourt of Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans doesn’t provide the offensive threat like that of Michigan State’s. So by defending the three-point line and forcing the Badgers to beat you from inside the arc, you’re already putting their offense in an unaccustomed position.
As evidence, the Badgers score just 47.9 percent of their points off of two-pointers, the 10th-lowest mark in the conference, via KenPom.
Secondly, by suffocating the perimeter, it funnels the ball down low where the their post players or jump shooters are more likely to be fouled.
Foul the Badgers
There’s a reason why Ryan Evans, according to KenPom.com, has drawn fouls at a rate of 5.5 per 40-minute game. It’s because teams know he’s been horrendous from the free-throw line.
I don’t claim to know what’s wrong with Evans, who shot a more-than-respectable 72 percent from the stripe last season. For whatever reason, though, he has only knocked down 40 percent. It’s been so bad that when Evans does knock one down, it occasionally sends the Kohl Center crowd into a faux applause.
The shooting epidemic isn’t just on Evans, though. Brust is down from 83 percent last year to 64.7 percent on the season. Forward Mike Bruesewitz is down from 70 percent to 65 percent. Freshman Sam Dekker, a clutch shooter in his own right, is hitting just 64 percent of his free throws, via ESPN.
The only starter whose free throw percentage is up is Jackson, and that’s because he was just 2-of-3 all last season.
In short, it makes no sense not to force the Badgers to beat you from the free-throw line. On top of that, it gets Wisconsin out of its 35-second shot clock rhythm and gives opponents time to rest.
Rebounding on Both Ends
There is nothing more demoralizing than when Wisconsin drains the shot clock, finds space from the perimeter, takes a shot from outside and misses but collects the rebound.
The Badgers know that long shots give them a chance for long caroms off the rim, which is why the entire team crashes to the glass. If teams can limit their offensive rebounding, it means they won’t have to endure the potential minute-long possession sure to follow.
Wisconsin excels at getting defensive rebounds, but if teams can manage to slip through and get offensive boards, the Badgers will then have to suffer the same exhaustion that they induce on so many other teams.
The bottom line is that the Badgers are a good team that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. They’ll never beat you with their quickness or athleticism, but they will beat you mentally.
The key for opponents is to not fall into the trap of trying to force the issue on offense. Wisconsin will usually win if teams tire themselves out. Opponents need to play at a sustainable, comfortable pace to have any chance.
Either beat them at their own game, or risk not beating them at all.