Wisconsin Basketball: Non-Conference Season in Review


A look at how the Wisconsin basketball team fared in the non-conference season

The Wisconsin Badgers left the Kohl Center on Wednesday with an 84-79 win over UW-Green Bay in a crazy game that summed up Wisconsin’s non-conference portion of the schedule, which has now concluded.

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For the first 27 minutes of the game, the Badgers looked like a team that had all the answers with a 68-38 lead with 13 minutes to play. Those 13 minutes were a total nightmare for interim head coach Greg Gard in his debut as the head man. Wisconsin was on the wrong end of a 33-6 run, and Green Bay came within three points on three occasions before the Badgers made a few defensive stops and knocked down some free throws for the win.

The non-conference finale against Green Bay was arguably the most bizarre game in the 2015-16 Wisconsin basketball season, which is saying something considering what has happened with the program since the season began on Nov. 13.

This year started just like last season as another Final Four banner was raised up to the rafters of the Kohl Center, but on the court, Wisconsin suffered a stunning, season-opening loss to Western Illinois, who is projected to finish last in the Summit League by the conference’s coaches.

The cautious optimism from fans dwindled following the loss for Wisconsin, who came in ranked No. 17 in the preseason polls. Could this be the year the Badgers miss the NCAA tournament?

The Badgers bounced back with blowout home wins against Siena and North Dakota. Wisconsin traveled to Madison Square Garden to participate in the 2K Classic and suffered a 10-point loss to Georgetown, who led the whole game. The Badgers left New York two days later after an exciting, last-second victory against VCU.

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  • After an easy win against Prairie View A&M, Wisconsin was beaten badly by Oklahoma on the road. However, the Badgers seemed to be back on track following an impressive win against Syracuse on the road in overtime and handled Temple in Madison. This would not be the case, as Wisconsin dropped consecutive home games to in-state rivals UW-Milwaukee and Marquette.

    The Badgers came back a few days later to defeat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi before Bo Ryan shocked the world in the post-game press conference, stating that game was his last. The non-conference slate was capped off by the Green Bay game, as the Badgers avoided getting swept by the state of Wisconsin.

    Wisconsin now stands with an 8-5 record prior to Big Ten play. Obviously the biggest non-conference storyline was Ryan’s retirement, but there is not much to take away from one game under Gard.

    After losing so many of last season’s contributors, we learned a lot from this young, inexperienced team through the first 13 games of the season.

    Replacing five of their top seven scorers, including first-round draft picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker has been a struggle for the Badgers, as it would be for most teams. Wisconsin’s inexperienced roster also features eight freshmen, tied for the most in the country. The Badgers’ lineup has typically gone just eight players deep, which is why the absence of freshmen Andy Van Vliet (ineligible) and Brevin Pritzl (injury) has been so crucial.

    As expected, juniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have been the team’s top two scorers. It has not been easy for the duo that are now being relied on as the go-to players on the team.

    Hayes leads the Badgers with an average of 16.2 points per game, but his field-goal percentage has gone from 49.7 percent last season to 38.4 percent this year. Hayes is the focal point of the offense and has to work harder for his scoring opportunities now that defenses do not have Kaminsky or Dekker to plan for, which has not been an easy transition.

    Like Hayes, Koenig may have tried to do too much during non-conference play. With so many weapons on last year’s team, Koenig was the ideal point guard for the Badgers’ offense. His pass-first philosophy worked to perfection with the amount of talent around him as he finished with nearly a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    This year, Koenig has 31 assists with 25 turnovers. He had been pressing in recent weeks and just unraveled against Green Bay, shooting 2 of 8 from the field with one assist and eight turnovers in 20 minutes of action due to foul trouble. Koenig also appears to have taken over the Traevon Jackson role at the end of games where he isolates and takes the final shot. He was successful against VCU but missed last-second shots in losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee.

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    Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ developed into Wisconsin’s third scorer, averaging 11.5 points and leads the team in rebounding and blocks with four double doubles. Players and coaches raved about his play on the scout team last season, and he has a great chance of being a four-year starter for Wisconsin. He has been good around the rim with a 54.3 field-goal percentage, and his defense has improved steadily since the beginning of the year. Issues for Happ include turnovers and foul trouble, which limited his minutes early in the season.

    Junior Vitto Brown has been a good rebounder for the Badgers so far, averaging 7.2 boards per game. He also scores 10.4 points per contest and has developed a decent mid-range jumper. Brown can still be frustrating to watch with his brick hands in the post and simply goes too fast at times. Brown was a big question mark coming into the season, and we have seen mixed results from him so far.

    Junior Zak Showalter rounds out the starting five, and his defensive ability looks to be his strongest asset. He does well drawing charges, which can also lead to foul trouble when calls do not go his way. Showalter leads the team in fouls, which is an issue with Wisconsin’s lack of depth in the backcourt. Against Green Bay, Showalter and Koenig each dealt with foul trouble against a defense that ranked No. 2 in the country in steals. However, sophomore Jordan Hill emerged from the bench and likely earned himself more playing time with his performance.

    Freshmen Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Khalil Iverson are the others to receive meaningful playing time off the bench. We have not seen as much from Illikainen, but Thomas has shown instinctive rebounding ability, and the high-flying Iverson is an exciting player to watch.

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    With the non-conference slate finished, the Badgers will now look ahead to the Big Ten season, which begins on Dec. 29 in Madison against Purdue.