Wisconsin Basketball: Badgers hit the road to play Northwestern

MADISON, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 17: Chucky Hepburn #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers dribbles up court during the second half of the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Kohl Center on January 17, 2023 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)
MADISON, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 17: Chucky Hepburn #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers dribbles up court during the second half of the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Kohl Center on January 17, 2023 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images) /

Starting off what promises to be a busy week for Wisconsin basketball, our boys invade Evanston, Illinois to do battle with the Northwestern Wildcats. In a game that has been postponed and re-scheduled twice now, the two teams finally square off tonight at 5:30 (CST). The game will be aired on the Big Ten Network.

Records and recent history

Both teams head into tonight’s game with identical 12-5 overall records. Wisconsin has the slightly better conference mark of 4-3 with Northwestern right behind with a record of 3-3.

The Wildcats have dropped 7 straight and 8 out of the last 10 to the Badgers. Wisconsin’s average margin of victory during that stretch is 13.6 points per win.

It has been almost 5 full calendar years since Wisconsin last lost to Northwestern. That game, a 60-52 defeat, came on February 1, 2018. Wisconsin’s overall record against Northwestern dating back to the 1949-50 season is 83-43, a .659 winning percentage. To say that Wisconsin has owned this series would be a slight understatement.

Northwestern’s “Empire State” backcourt

Northwestern runs a 3-guard set with loads of experience and skill. The Wildcats’ backcourt bring grit and toughness with the New York-born senior duo of Chase Audige and Boo Buie. Both guards average slightly over 15 points a game and average 3.2 rebounds per game. The off-guard position is manned by junior Ty Berry.

Audige is slightly the better shooter, hitting 38.1% from the field and 35.5% from the 3-point range. Buie’s shooting stats are 35.8% from the field and 27.5% from downtown. Buie is a bit better facilitator of the two, dishing out 4.3 assists per game versus 3.3 for Audige. Berry is a solid contributor with 9.6 PPG and 5 boards a contest.

Having such an experienced backcourt tandem is a huge advantage for Northwestern. These 2 senior leaders are able to provide a calming presence and help settle the team whenever adversity strikes during the game. Berry adds the versatility to take advantage of that calmness.

Wisconsin’s “Youth-movement” in the backcourt

While Northwestern starts two experienced seniors in the backcourt, Wisconsin is on the opposite end of the spectrum, starting sophomore Chucky Hepburn and true freshman Connor Essegian. What they lack in experience they more than makeup for in talent.

Starting since his first game at Wisconsin, Hepburn is Wisconsin’s third-leading scorer with 12.7 PPG, while also contributing 3.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He is security conscious, only averaging 1.7 turnovers per game.

Essegian, the freshman “baby face assassin”, made his first career start against Penn State last game. On the year, Connor is averaging 10.5 PPG and 3.3 rebounds per game. His dead-eye accuracy is exhibited in his 45% from the field and 45.6% from beyond the arc.

Identical front courts at first glance

Northwestern’s 2 big men are senior 6’9″ forward Robbie Beran and junior 7’0″ center Matthew Nicholson. Wisconsin counters with 6’9″ forward Tyler Wahl and junior 7’0″ center Steven Crowl.

That is where the comparison ends, as Wisconsin should have a decided advantage in the battle of the bigs. Crowl and Wahl are Wisconsin’s scoring leaders, each averaging 12.9 points per game. Crowl averages 6.8 boards a game, with Wahl grabbing 6.3 himself.

Beran is the Wildcats’ third-leading scorer, with 9.7 PPG and 6 boards a game. Nicholson chips in 6.6 PPG and 6.5 RPG.

Gard vs Collins

While some of the Wisconsin faithful have been disappointed with Greg Gard, he has been the model of consistency, going 156-83 for a .653 winning percentage. On top of that, his Badgers have won the Big Ten regular season twice and he’s made the NCAA 5 out of 7 years he’s been the coach (there was no tournament in ’19-20 because of COVID-19).

Chris Collins has a pure basketball pedigree, playing for the legendary Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Under Collin’s leadership, Northwestern made its first-ever NCAA tournament ’16-17, losing in the second round to eventual runner-up Gonzaga 79-73.

Conclusion and prediction

This game is finally going to tip off tonight, after 2 delays. History is clearly on Wisconsin’s side, as they seem to be able to just consistently beat some teams no matter what. Northwestern is much improved this year, led by a core of solid upper-classmen. Because of this, I expect the game to be the typical close, Big Ten war. Wisconsin’s talented frontcourt and their overall athleticism will just be too much in the end and I expect them to pull away.

Prediction: Wisconsin 74-Northwestern 68