The Rutgers men’s basketball team will play its third game in six days, as well as the second one on the road tonight at Wisconsin. The Badgers are ranked in the top 20 nationally and are led by preseason All-American center Ethan Happ. Wisconsin is one of the toughest road environments to play in, not just the Big Ten but across the college basketball landscape. This game will certainly be a major challenge for the Scarlet Knights.
I was fortunate to speak with Jake Kocorowski of SB Nation’s Wisconsin blog, Bucky’s 5th Quarter about the current state of Wisconsin basketball ahead of this matchup. After an uncharacteristic down year last season, I wanted to find out what’s been the difference in this year’s team and their strong start. Let’s tip things off here.
AB: Wisconsin has started strong this season with four KenPom top 60 wins and a 7-1 record. What were expectations for this year after last season’s uncharacteristic poor record and is Greg Gard the long term answer?
JK: I think the expectations were really just to get back to being competitive in the Big Ten, try to make a run at the conference title or be in the top 4 as it was for nearly 20 seasons prior, and making the NCAA tournament after last year. With the injuries to D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King last season, it hampered depth in the backcourt and forced players like Brad Davison to learn to play the point. Now, there is more depth there and the team returned 94.9 percent of its scoring, so a lot of maturity has taken place.
In my opinion, Gard is definitely the long term answer. The class of 2015 that yielded really only two of five commits gaining prominent playing time was Bo Ryan’s last. Based on the early performance, I feel this team has definitely turned the corner to playing better ball (I mean, they showed signs of it late last season as well with the win over Purdue and playing Michigan State tough). Gard knows to how recruit. He knows how to coach, and knows how to do so at UW.
AB: Looking at advanced statistics, Wisconsin is extremely balanced, including having adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings in the top 20 of Division I. Do you think this team can maintain this level of play and which area do you think will hold up as their strength in Big Ten competition?
JK: Until they prove me wrong, I think they can. There will always be some regression to the mean I feel. Can Trice continue to shoot over 58 percent from three-point range? I’m not necessarily sure, but I think he has shown that he has returned in a big way.
Offensively, it really will depend on how preseason All-American Ethan Happ and if he continues his extremely solid start, which we’ll talk about in the next question. Essentially if he maintains what he’s done so far, which is efficient around the rim and making those “how does a big man do that?” plays like he can, that forces opponents in a “pick your poison” type situation. Either double him up and leave someone open for a shot, or let him post up, spin on a defender and create a high percentage shot.
Defensively, Gard preaches defending and the players know that. Yes, you have “controversial” charge-machine Brad Davison (lol) but it’s not just that. Forward Nate Reuvers added about 20-30 pounds onto his frame from his freshman season and had nine blocks against Stanford over a week ago. They have answered the call well on that aspect of the game so far.
AB: Ethan Happ almost single handily beat Rutgers down the stretch two years ago at the Garden, but they defended him much better last season in the upset win. How has his game improved throughout his career and is he operating any differently within Wisconsin’s offense this season?
JK: I think his leadership has really come through this season even more. I’m not sure if he’s really doing anything different with his game outside of just having that maturity and added experience of another year of game time and in the weight room. He knows how to work the inside game, create those shots, but what always makes him so dangerous is the ability to find his teammates for open shots. And this year, they’re hitting them.
He still is not a three-point shooter or great from the free-throw line (now 46.4 percent from the charity stripe), for what it’s worth.
AB: Wisconsin is off to a tremendous start shooting the basketball this season (.479/.725/.421). How balanced are they offensively now and do you think the improvement from players like Nate Reuvers and D’Mitrick Rice sustainable long term?
JK: Right now, only two players average double figures in scoring (Trice and Happ), but they’re finding complementary scoring from different players each game. You mentioned Reuvers, but Davison, Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson, Aleem Ford and Kobe King--the latter who has the potential to be really special both in college and professionally--can score double digits when called upon and make an impact. Against Iowa, Pritzl stepped up with 12 key points--including a clutch three-pointer with 95 seconds left to give Wisconsin the lead they would not relinquish.
I think the improvement is sustainable long-term, but I also know that players will have highs and lows throughout the season. Luckily for Wisconsin, they seem to be deeper in those players that can contribute when others may have an off game.
AB: Rutgers has actually played Wisconsin relatively well since joining the Big Ten (2-3 including the OT loss at MSG). How do Wisconsin fans view the matchup and Rutgers overall since joining the conference from a basketball point of view?
JK: Especially after the way Rutgers has played early on, I think the feeling among Wisconsin fans is that the team cannot take the Scarlet Knights lightly. I mean Rutgers has defeated Wisconsin twice already since joining the conference, something you already mentioned.
Before the solid start by Rutgers, I think many may have written off the game. I had a group of friends buy tickets to Monday’s game a couple weeks’ back for around $6, so it isn’t a high-demand ticket. Though this is not a “rivalry” game, this is a game the fans and team will not overlook.
AB: How do you see this game playing out and final score prediction?
JK: I think this game will be a 70-62 win for Wisconsin, where Rutgers plays UW close but the Badgers pull away late. These conference games mean a lot and the Scarlet Knights gave the Spartans a run for its money. With the recent history, I expect a tight game but Wisconsin to continue being undefeated in the conference.
Thanks to Jake for providing great insight on Wisconsin basketball. You can follow him on twitter here. For more coverage of Wisconsin athletics, visit Bucky’s 5th Quarter. To read my answers to Jake’s questions on Rutgers, click here.