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Phil Mitten of the excellent SBNation Wisconsin blog Bucky's 5th Quarter graciously agreed to answer some questions about Wisconsin and Tuesday's first-place showdown game with Michigan State. We'll provide a link to my answers to his questions when it's available. Meanwhile, be sure to vist Bucky's 5th Quarter for all things Wisconsin.
1. It's been an odd season for Wisconsin. 4 losses in the non-conference but several impressive wins, including perhaps the best win in D1 this year at Indiana. How would you assess Wisconsin at this point?
Certainly it has been oddly inconsistent. There have been expected losses, unexpected losses, and thrilling surprises. We know that Wisconsin can pound on inferior competition, and the defense is starting to come around. But offensively, the play has been uneven due to a lack of leadership and no clearly-defined go-to player. I'd like that guy to be freshman Sam Dekker at some point, but Ryan Evans seems to have other ideas.
2. Many Spartan fans consider Wisconsin to be MSU's biggest rival. And most of those who put Michigan first would probably put Wisconsin second. How do Badger fans view the rivalry?
I personally view Michigan State as Wisconsin's top basketball rival and have for many years now. Most fans under 40 are going to agree. You have two of the best coaches in college hoops facing off anywhere from 1-4 times a year, with some classic games won by both sides. Traditionally, the in-state rivalry with Marquette is hard to beat, especially for the older crowd. But despite the big brother-little brother, public-private, liberal/secular-Catholic aspects, those Marquette games just don't mean as much as the matchups between MSU and UW. Any other rivalry in hoops (Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota) lacks the staying power of those two from a Badger perspective.
3. Wisconsin has been known for the swing offense. Is this still accurate? How much swing do they run versus set plays and other offensive schemes? What do you expect to see against MSU?
Bo Ryan is definitely running less "swing" than in the past. The team has been a classic perimeter-oriented team for the past few seasons. A shift came primarily during the Jordan Taylor era, with the installation of more ball screens to get more pick-and-pop opportunities for guys like Jon Leuer and Jared Berggren. So you will see Wisconsin run a lot of "horns" action in certain situations with two ball screen options up top and shooters on the wing. One of the telltale signs of the slight deviation from the swing is the lack of post-ups from the guards on the block to invert the offense. I expect to see pretty much the same thing against MSU since the one thing you can count on from Bo Ryan is consistency.
4. Jared Berggren seems very underrated as a post player. Do you think he's a top 25 big man in the country? Is he the best Wisconsin player and what are his strengths and weaknesses?
Off the top of my head, yeah, Berggren should place right around the end of a Top 25 list. He's a great shotblocker who, despite a recent mini-slump, also has a great touch from the outside. A big bonus this year has been his aggressiveness attacking the rim, leading to some memorable dunks. Another strength is Berggren's low turnover rate. He definitely has flaws, too. His rebounding is average, for example, and I wish he wasn't so invisible in his off games. But overall, Berggren has indeed been UW's best player this season and certainly the biggest matchup problem for opponents.
What is up with Ryan Evans' free-throw shooting and why does Bo Ryan allow him to dominate the Wisconsin offense when he is shooting .464/.056/.390 (2P%/3P%/FT%)?
Evans has never been a great shooter, per se, but as a lifetime 71% free throw shooter, it's got to be a complete mental block. And oddly, the 15-foot catch and shoot is his bread and butter. My suggestion would be no dribbling on the charity stripe, just grab the ball and chuck it. The coach doesn't have much of a choice since Evans is by far his best defensive rebounder. It would be cool to see Bo run out on the court and swat a few of Evans' ill-advised jumpers though.
6. What has been the impact of the loss of Josh Gasser? How are the Badgers distributing the point guard responsibilities in his absence?
At this point, it's hard to overestimate the loss of Gasser. He was easily the team's best perimeter defender, a great rebounding guard, and most importantly, a steady, reliable leader. His absence has left a hole Wisconsin has not filled to this point. As a result, the point guard play has been spotty at best. Traevon Jackson took over the starting job from George Marshall after the first six games. Marshall is the superior shooter, but Jackson has shown a few positives -- starting with defense. Jackson is growing more confident by the game, and simply directs the offense better than Marshall. Jackson's turnovers and 3-point accuracy leave a lot to be desired though.
7. After a 4-0 start it certainly looks promising for Bo Ryan to continue his streak of never finishing worse than 4th in the conference. Do you see the Badgers contending for the conference title?
I'd feel a lot more prepared to answer that question at the end of the week. I think it's unwise to judge a team on its best win or worst loss. For Wisconsin this means I haven't seen enough outside of the Indiana game (thanks, Illini dumpster fire...) to indicate this team is ready to hang at the top of the conference all year. The Badgers will be a factor, but I think keeping the Top 4 streak intact is a more reasonable goal.
8. What do you see as the key match-ups in this game?
Keeping Berggren aggressive AND out of foul trouble is going to be huge. He must be a factor in this game. The senior forwards did not play up to expectations against Iowa, so I expect a bounce back at home, which should offset some of the edge in talent on the wing by Michigan St.
It will be interesting to see how Ben Brust handles Gary Harris, and vice versa. I'd like to see Brust make Harris work a little on defense, but I fear he'll just hang out by the arc all day. Michigan State has a clear edge in the backcourt, so I don't even want to think about Appling and Harris forcing Traevon Jackson into turnovers. Making smarter decisinos will at least allow Wisconsin to limit transition buckets by MSU.
9. Prediction for the game?
To be honest, I was surprised to see Wisconsin still favored by Pomeroy in this one. Then again, Pomeroy doesn't know the Badgers could be without two of its top three subs (center Frank Kaminsky for sure, possibly Marshall). Either way, this will be a nailbiter ... Wisconsin by a Ryan Evans banked 3-pointer at the buzzer?