There were 19 professional scouts that were credentialed for Saturday’s game between No. 13 Wisconsin and Rutgers per assistant director of communications Jordan Ozer. They were all there primarily to see Badgers star Johnny Davis, who entered the game as the 13th leading scorer in the nation and second leading scorer in Big Ten play. He’s a national player of the year candidate and a likely top ten pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.
Davis didn’t disappoint in scoring 19 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in leading Wisconsin to a Big Ten best 14th conference win. However, he worked extremely hard for everything he got due to another tremendous performance from Rutgers’ Caleb McConnell. He blanketed Davis for a second time in two weeks and forced him into one of his worst shooting nights of his standout campaign. The Badgers playmaker made just 6 of 19 shots for 31.6% from the floor after coming into the game shooting 46.8% in Big Ten play. His point total increased due to making 6 of 7 free throw attempts.
In fact, over two games, Davis averaged just 15 points on 37.9% shooting from the floor. He was held to just 11 points in the first meeting that saw Rutgers upset Wisconsin on their home floor. He was 1 of 6 from three-point range combined in the two games. In addition, Davis was held to just one offensive rebound in both games against McConnell and had only 1 assist in each matchup as well.
“I couldn’t be more proud of his development during both games versus Johnny Davis,” commented Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “When they first got here, you know, they played high school defense, you know, just kind of guard whoever you guard. Now they play team defense. Caleb’s taking on the leading scorers in the country at Iowa, you know, here at Wisconsin. I mean, the guys he has to play every night and he embraces that. He’s as good a defender as you’ll see. He’s really worked out. He watches film, you know, he stays extra. He wants to know and he wants to take on that challenge. I’ve been blessed to coach a guy like that. It’s a great feeling. His improvement is impressive, he has just been unbelievable on that end of the floor. He can guard multiple positions and he can guard a lot of different guys. So they spend a lot of energy.”
McConnell finished Saturday’s loss with 6 defensive rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 2 steals while making Davis work for everything he got offensively. He shut Davis down late in the game on a possession that McConnell defended him at the top of the key that kept Rutgers in it for a chance to win it.
“The thing about Steve Pikiell’s teams is that they play so hard,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “I’ve said that for the years he’s been here. That was the first thing I noticed that he changed and got established is how hard they play. Then you have a guy like Caleb and the length and how hard he plays and the way he can move. He’s physical. Yeah, he’s a really good defensive player and that’s the chess match that goes on within the game.”
The consistent disruption caused by McConnell on the defensive end has been so impressive this season. He leads the Big Ten in league play with 2.3 steals per game and leads the conference with a 4.6% steal rate. McConnell had 21 steals over a five game period that ended this past week that was the second most of any Big Ten player in the last 20 years. Only four players have averaged over 2 steals per contest in the conference in the last decade, but McConnell is now close to becoming the fifth. At 6’7”, the wing is also 24th in the league in block rate at 2.3% and 25th in defensive rebounding rate at 16.8%. His defensive rating was third best in the Big Ten entering Saturday’s game.
McConnell’s case for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year is continues to gain steam and his two performances against Davis are worthy of inclusion at the top of his resume for the prestigious award. Davis himself gave effusive praise to McConnell for his defense against him on Saturday.
“It was really frustrating because Caleb McConnell is a really good defender,” said Davis. “He’s definitely the toughest guy to face. He was on me the whole game and made it really tough for me to get buckets. He uses his hands and his athleticism really well. He can guard the one through four really well. He’s definitely the key piece to their defense and in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Every time he goes out of the game, I have a little sigh of relief knowing that I don’t have to have someone like that tailing me around.”
It was a tough loss for Rutgers against No. 13 Wisconsin and their NCAA Tournament hopes now rely on a big closing week in games at Indiana and at home against Penn State, followed by the Big Ten Tournament. After a slow start to this season, McConnell has risen to become an elite defensive player and continues to be a key glue guy for the Scarlet Knights. His block out of nowhere against Ohio State is the signature defensive play of the season so far in the Big Ten and his overall play has been consistently at a higher level than any other player in the league. No matter what happens the rest of the way and whether the powers that be name him Big Ten DPOY or not, McConnell has produced a incredibly memorable season and Rutgers wouldn’t be nearly as good a defensive team without him. He proved that once again sticking with Davis under the bright lights on Saturday night.