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Rutgers Basketball Game Preview 22: Wisconsin

The rematch takes place in the world’s most famous arena and our preview includes Steve Pikiell’s thoughts on the venue, as well as much more.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

Wisconsin (17-3; 6-1) At Rutgers (12-9; 1-7)

Where: Madison Square Garden in New York City

Tip-off: Saturday, January 28th at 12:00 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler / Jon Crispin / Rick Pizzo

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #138; Wisconsin #10

KenPom Prediction: Wisconsin 69 Rutgers 56; Rutgers is given a 12% chance of winning

Series History: Wisconsin leads 5-1 all-time.

Game Recap: Wisconsin 72 Rutgers 52

The first game was full of drama, from Corey Sanders being benched due to missing practice after he was late in returning from Christmas break, to Pikiell benching the entire starting lineup after Rutgers fell behind 6-0 in a flash, to Sanders leaving the game in the second half after spraining his ankle. This team is a lot more settled now and according to Pikiell, who spoke on a conference call I was on yesterday, Rutgers is much improved since their first meeting with the Badgers a month ago. Here is what he said about that:

“We are a totally different team now in watching that tape (of the 1st meeting). Our guards really struggled in that game, Nigel and Corey. I think we are better offensively and I think we are better defensively. I think you’ll see that on Saturday. Again, we are playing a terrific team which I think you guys know. They start four seniors, one is a fifth year senior, they have three of the best players in the league. So we obviously have to play a lot better. Even in the last game (against Wisconsin) when we didn’t play well, with 8 minutes left it was a 9 point game and we had the ball. We kind of hung around a little bit, but we just didn’t play well in that game at all. So hopefully, we’ll show we are a lot more improved at this time of the year.”

About Wisconsin

They are the highest rated opponent Rutgers has faced and will now do so for the second time this season. Their starting five is very good, including all-conference players Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig. However, Vitto Brown is solid and a veteran, and Zach Showalter is a very good point guard who doesn’t get enough credit on this team. Here are the stat lines per game for the aforementioned starting lineup.

Nigel Hayes: 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.0 steal

Ethan Happ: 13.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steal, 1.0 block

Bronson Koenig: 14.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists

Vitto Brown: 8.0 points, 4.2 rebounds

Zach Showalter: 8.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.6 steals

As a team, the Badgers shoot 48% from the field and 37% from three-point range. Advanced statistics wise, they are 3rd in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive numbers. They are fundamentally sound, well balanced, and very consistent. Here is what coach Pikiell had to say on Wisconsin:

“It’s difficult. They don’t turn the ball over, they play at their pace. They’re very fundamentally sound. All of their players can shoot, pass, and dribble. And they have two of the best post up guys in the league. They have shooters, are disciplined, they slow the game down, grind you. Very much a veteran basketball team, guys that have logged a lot of minutes. You look at their career numbers, these guys have played a lot of minutes for a long time. They cause us a lot of problems. They have great size, they rebound the ball. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses for sure.”

Here is what he said about preparing to play a team twice:

“Nothing is easy based on the players they have and that they are ranked 15th and are 17-3. You learn from the first film and you try and implement some stuff. The players are more familiar. I think it helps the players because they love watching film of themselves. We are watching film of them in the game and they are a little more locked in when they see themselves, as opposed to showing them film of Minnesota and Wisconsin game.”

Keys To The Game

Defensive Masterpiece Is Needed

Yesterday, I covered how Mike Williams has the highest offensive rating on Rutgers at 110. Well, all five starters have a higher rating than any player for Rutgers, so they are facing a major uphill battle. To even keep within single digits of Wisconsin, Rutgers must put forth one of their best defensive efforts of the season. Ball pressure, limiting second chance points, and forcing multiple pass rotations for the Badger offense is a must. They cannot allow any easy baskets and make Wisconsin work through the entire shot clock as often as possible. The more they force them into jump shots, the better.

This actually is necessary against every Big Ten opponent, but Rutgers cannot afford to allow extended runs of 10-2 or 14-4 for stretches or they will fall into a hole that is unrecoverable. This is even more important in playing against the best team in the league in Wisconsin. The past two games, Rutgers has gotten murdered coming out of halftime, giving up huge swings to Nebraska and Maryland. They were able to recover against the Corhuskers, barely, but it allowed for the Terps to essentially win the game in the first five minutes after the break. I asked Pikiell about the slow starts after halftime the past two games and this is what he said:

“Every time we sit down we approach a lot of issues. How we begin games, how we begin halves, how we end games. Free throws during the games, turning the ball over. We’ve talked a lot about it and addressed it with the guys. We are going to do a couple different things during warmups. We always try and address things we see as patterns. That’s certainly one. You have to give the other teams credit, they come out and are efficient with what they do too. We are going to change a few things up this halftime and see if it helps.”

Something Has To Give On The Glass

Wisconsin is 13th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage at 37.2% and they are 3rd in the country in defending offensive boards, holding opponents to just 22.5%. As you know, Rutgers is 8th in the country in offensive rebound percentage at 39%, so whichever team gets the upper hand, it will be a big factor in this game. Although Wisconsin held a +11 rebounding margin in the first meeting, something Rutgers cannot allow this time, the Scarlet Knights did hold a +1 edge on the offensive glass. Rutgers has been out-rebounding most of their Big Ten opponents, but Wisconsin is a huge challenge. If they can’t do a better job this time around against them, a similar result will follow.

Rutgers Needs Great Guard Play

Wisconsin is 272nd in defending the three, allowing for 37% by opponents. In fact, Rutgers, who is shooting a horrific 29% from three-point range, even shot well against the Badgers last time out, making 7 of 18 shots from behind the arc for 39%. The scary thing is Rutgers still lost by 20 points. Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson both shot extremely well in the first meeting from long range. Williams has been struggling, but I think he could break out tomorrow for these reasons. Nigel is 5 of 8 from deep the past two games and needs to keep it going.

It’s not just long range shooting though, as Corey Sanders, along with Johnson and Williams, need to all play well for Rutgers to even keep this game close. Limiting turnovers and transition baskets, as well as being smart on offense, is a responsibility that ultimately falls on them. Taking open jumpers when they are there need to be balanced with attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line. Which leads to the elephant in the room with my next key.

Free Throws, Free Throws, Free Throws

It was maddening to watch Rutgers waste opportunities at the charity stripe against Maryland, making what could have been a nailbiter into a relatively comfortable win instead for the Terps. Rutgers is shooting an abysmal 54% from the line in Big Ten play. Their rate in getting to the line is respectable, but it doesn’t matter if they cannot take advantage. The misses, especially in the first half, disrupted their ability to get on an extended run and killed momentum. Pikiell was asked about how he is addressing the issue:

“It’s been an emphasis all year. It’s the same thing, they were in the gym yesterday shooting. They had a day off yesterday, so today we did some free throw shooting games. Shooting is a part of shooting, we’re not a great shooting team, so free throws just flow into that. We’ve got to get them a little more mentally tougher, we did some pressure stuff today, some streaks. Just some different things that we try and do between drills and we’ll see if it pays off.”

In The Bonus

There is no doubt that losing a true home game at the RAC, where Rutgers stunned #4 Wisconsin two seasons ago, certainly hurts their chances tomorrow. The atheltic department did a great job in selling out their portion of student tickets made available, through promotion and providing transportation, etc. The Garden is a special place and Rutgers has great history playing there, so it would be fun to see a good turnout from the fan base tomorrow. If it is mostly Wisconsin fans, who are celebrating a Big Ten orchestrated double header, with a hockey game versus Ohio State at night, it would be very disappointing. Here are Pikiell’s thoughts on playing at the Garden:

“We are looking forward to a great crowd at Madison Square Garden, we’ve played well there. We are excited about this great opportunity, another ranked team that we get to play and hopefully we will play a lot better. I think we are more improved and we’ll see what happens.”

“The Garden is great, it’s a great place to play. I think our fans are happy, the students are going to come out. I’m excited about that and the opportunity to play there, but the RAC is where I like to play my games.”

If you live in the city or are nearby, take in the matinee in person at what I consider the best place to watch any live sporting event or concert anywhere, except for the RAC, of course. This game is crucial for Rutgers, as even a close loss would give this team much needed confidence heading into a four game stretch that I consider all winnable if they play well. Let’s hope tomorrow is much more interesting than the Wisconsin faithful expect it to be!