Joining us today from our fellow blog Bucky's 5th Quarter is Phil Mitten (previously of Hoops Marinara) who is well worth a follow: @hoopsmarinara. For my answers to his questions, check out B5Q here.
1) What a month for Badger basketball, eh? Last time we saw you guys, you were .500 overall and an extreme long-shot for the NCAA tournament, and now you're likely in the field and 16-9 overall. What have been the keys to the seven-game winning streak?
Phil, B5Q: Finally getting over the hump and winning a close game gave this team a lot of confidence. In particular, the Northwestern loss was the low point for Wisconsin. Nigel Hayes spoke up and challenged his teammates to play up to their potential. Greg Gard said he believes the team's chemistry has really improved too. With so many new guys this year, I'm buying it. Incredible camaraderie was certainly one of the main ingredients to Wisconsin's success over the last few years.
On the court, it started with getting tougher and more aggressive. The Badgers piled up free throw rates over 70% for three straight games starting against your Spartans. Then the three-pointers started to drop ... and when it rains it pours. Led by the emergence of Vitto Brown, Wisconsin has made 36-of-71 triples (51%) in the last three games.
2) Wisconsin is 289th in the country in assists per field goal made and is led in assist percentage by Nigel Hayes. Despite that the Badgers are top-50ish in offensive efficiency. Is this a case of having a number of efficient creators, or something else?
Phil, B5Q: It is an unsurprising statistic. Hayes has seen many of his nice passes turn into offensive rebounds rather than assists because guys like Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown and Khalil Iverson have had trouble finishing bunnies at times this year. Plus, the Kohl Center scorekeepers are fairly notorious for their stingy nature when it comes crediting players with assists, so that doesn't help. The team has also attempted the second-most free throws in the conference, so that eliminates some of their assist opportunities. However, those elements are dwarfed by the fact that, in Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the Badgers do have a pair of prominent players very capable of creating shots for themselves.
3) The Badgers seem a little thin on the bench, with just 5 players playing more than 40% of minutes and just seven guys at or above 30%. Have they struggled with foul trouble on the road, or have there been other bench-related issues?
Phil, B5Q: How timely! Two starters, Ethan Happ and Zak Showalter, ran into foul trouble early at Maryland. Both were glued to the bench with four fouls within the first two minutes of the second half. Gard got great minutes from his bench to weather that storm, which is a great sign for a team that barely used its reserves when Bo Ryan was in charge. There was concern amongst fans that Koenig and Showalter would wear out, but Gard has shown faith in redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill to be the third guard. Hill has rewarded him with pretty solid contributions generally. Freshman forward Alex Illikainen's minutes have also gone way up, as his ability to stretch the floor from the 4-spot is much greater than the other young guys getting spot minutes. That has opened up things for the offense quite a bit.
4) Tell me something about Greg Gard that might help me rekindle the #RealRival fire that has faded with the retirement of Bo Ryan.
Phil, B5Q: I guess you criticize Gard's media savvy to this point. He's still feeling his way out in that department, but I doubt that topic is going to boil any blood. I did hear he tipped off Al Jazeera to HGH use by Sparty, and that he believes Draymond Green's free throw shooting is going to cost the Warriors a second title.
Or should I just remind you that Greg Gard has never lost to Michigan State as a head coach?
5) Care to venture a prediction?
Phil, B5Q: Even if it wasn't an obvious letdown game for Wisconsin, Michigan State is really tough to beat anywhere while Denzel Valentine is at his peak, let alone at Breslin. I will say that another three-point shooting performance like the past few will give the Badgers a good chance though. Problem is MSU can easily match it.
Spartans 68, Badgers 62