Ahead of the big clash in Madison on Sunday, Phil Mitten from Bucky's 5th Quarter was kind enough to answer some questions about the Badgers. He and I go back to the era when men were men and blogs didn't look so fancy pantsy (#TeamWordPress). My responses to his questions will be up on his site later. (UPDATE: Here they are.)
1. After cruising to a perfect start through 16 games, Wisconsin has experienced some surprising struggles in conference play, losing 5 of their last 7 games. Were there some issues that were masked in nonconference play or has the team regressed in specific areas?
The defensive issues that have plagued Wisconsin during this slide were not a complete surprise, but the suddenness and severity of the problem was. There were a string of guards early in the season (St. John's D'Angelo Harrison, UWGB's Keifer Sykes, North Dakota's Troy Huff) who put up nice games against the Badgers, but they played for weaker teams.Unlike last season, UW doesn't have a tough, experienced front court to cover for the guards when they get burned going to the bucket.
However, the recent shooting woes are definitely a case of regression to the mean. Wisconsin was lights out (40% as a team) from 3-point land during its undefeated run. But hey, that's basketball.
2. The Badgers still look plenty potent on the offensive end, with Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust, and Josh Gasser all posting offensive ratings well above 110 and the team ranking in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. What does the structure of the offense look like this year? It is as maddeningly (for opponents) methodical as usual?
Statistics show the average possession length is just a tad shorter than last year; still slow, although noticeably faster than the Jordan Taylor days. It's basically the same approach, however, with an emphasis on limiting turnovers, shooting 3-pointers, and taking the best shot. One difference is that the shooters at all five starting positions are better than in years past, so everyone is a threat. I think they've done better getting the ball into the post this year and in moving the ball in general, which helps with the kickouts to open perimeter shots.
3. It's unusual for a freshman player to make a big impact for a Bo Ryan team, but Nigel Hayes has been a double digit scorer more often than not in Big Ten play. Tell us a little bit about his game.
Old school bruiser. Like that old guy at the YMCA. Just enough wiggle in his game to make you look bad on a post move, plus he always draws the foul -- he's attempted as many free throws as field goals. With Big Ten-ready strength and a developing 15-foot jumper, Hayes has quickly earned the trust of Bo Ryan and his teammates, to the point that he's been the go-to post option instead of Kaminsky lately. On top of all that, he's a first-ballot All-Big Ten personality. He still struggles with his free throws and foul trouble, but you couldn't ask for more out of a freshman.
4. Wisconsin is ranked in the 60's nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and is in the bottom half of the Big Ten in defensive efficiency during conference play. The numbers would indicate a lack of athleticism, as the team ranks very low in both defensive turnover percentage and block percentage. What's been the biggest issue on defense?
The low number of turnovers forced isn't an athleticism thing, that's a tried-and-true Bo Ryan philosophy. The Badgers rarely go for steals because the head coach doesn't want them to. You could be right about the blocked shots. Frank Kaminsky has blocked quite a few this year, but the rest of the team is pretty small.
As I explained earlier, opponents have been killing the Badgers by getting into the lane. Specifically, the team has had trouble defending pull-up jumpers off the screen-and-roll more than anything. I suspect Josh Gasser's play has fluctuated due his knee and without him at 100% all of the time, the remaining guards are not great at keeping guys out of the lane. Beyond that, there have been some mental lapses with the younger forwards, as well as a general lack of toughness at times that may result in too many offensive rebounds allowed against big, aggressive athletes.
5. At TOC, we have a running meme that Wisconsin is our only #RealRival. That's partially just a way to get in digs at Michigan fans for claiming for so long that they only cared about beating Ohio State, but it's also based on the facts that (1) MSU's basketball rivalry with Wisconsin has been so hard fought since the beginning of the Tom Izzo era and (2) the last few MSU-Wisconsin football games have been so well played and meaningful. What's the perception among the the Wisconsin fanbase about MSU relative to your rivalries with Minnesota and Iowa?
For historical and geographic reasons, the long border battle with Minnesota is probably the top rivalry, what with hockey and Paul Bunyan's Axe in football. But it seems like beating Minnesota over the last decade has been mostly about avoiding embarrassment with regard to bragging rights, in both football and basketball. Since the Axe series has been so lopsided in football, Michigan State and Ohio State have definitely become bigger football rivalries for the Badgers. Mark Dantonio has used the same defense-first script that Barry Alvarez installed here, which I think UW fans respect for the most part. Who knows, maybe hockey adds to the rivalry this year, too.
As you mentioned, though, the hardwood battles with Michigan State have been great since Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan took over. For me, it's always the can't miss game of the year. With MSU, winning was always more like showing the Badgers belonged and Ryan made his name on those early victories over Izzo. I've been enjoying the #RealRival movement on Twitter, even if it hasn't been so much fun for Wisconsin on the court lately.
6. Lastly, what do you see as the keys to victory for Wisconsin Sunday afternoon. Care to hazard a game prediction?
Frank Kaminsky has to step up for Wisconsin. He's looked a bit out of sorts lately and faces a huge challenge with Adreian Payne back in action. Dawson or no Dawson, I'll cede the rebounding edge to the Spartans (at least offensively), so it's simply going to come down to shooting. Neither team can afford to go cold from deep, but I really think Wisconsin's best shot is to get to the free throw line and actually make their freebies. Nigel Hayes, I'm looking at you ...
I don't know what the spread is, but I'd guess Michigan State extends Wisconsin's misery by about four points.