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Northwestern vs. Wisconsin: What To Watch

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

Before I even got around to filing research on Wisconsin, I pretty much knew what to expect with Bo Ryan’s team. Year after year the Badgers play some of the most mechanically predictable hoops around: they adjust the pace to their methodically slow comfort zone, pack the lane on the defensive end and make the most out of their possessions – their 109.8 offensive rating ranks 34in the country – on offense. This year’s team, despite losing star point guard Jordan Taylor to graduation and junior Josh Gasser to injury in the preseason, is no different. Wisconsin isn’t pretty to watch, it often allows teams to hang around more than any Badger fan might like, but above all the Badgers are brutally difficult to break down. Northwestern will have to figure out a way to do that Wednesday night.

Three Players to Watch 

Ryan Evans (senior, forward) 

Offense is not Evans’ strong suit. His counting statistics (points, rebounds per game) are right about where they were last season. A closer look at his efficiency profile reveals a different story. Not only is Evans commanding more possessions and more of his team’s shot attempts, he’s converting far fewer of those attempts into points; both his offensive rating (89.3) and effective field goal percentage (39.8) have taken pretty significant dips. All of that makes what Evans does in other areas – defense, rebounding, leadership, you name it – that much more important. Evans still plays over 73 percent of his team’s minutes, still locks down a wide range of positions and still rebounds at an elite clip (22.0 percent defensive rebounding percentage). Don’t look for a peerless offensive display from Evans Wednesday night. Focus on his defense.

Jared Berggren (senior, forward)

Whereas Evans’ offense has slipped, Berggren has evolved into one of the more adept low-post scorers in the Big Ten. And there are a lot of good big men in the Big Ten. Berggren hasn’t always been at his best against certain teams – the Minnesota and Indiana wins, for example – but he almost always finds other dimensions of the game to impose his influence. One thing Berggren does especially well: rebound. On offense and defense, Berggren owns glass-cleaning percentages greater than 10 percent, which is even more remarkable when you consider Ryan drills his team to eschew offensive rebounding for transition defense on most possessions. Berggren is also, like most of Wisconsin’s forwards, a fantastic rim-protector; his 6.9 percent block rate falls just outside the nation’s top 100. If Berggren can establish his bruising offensive game, the Badgers are so ruthlessly efficient in other areas that actually getting stops will be a huge uphill climb all night for Northwestern.

Traevon Jackson (sophomore, point guard)

Reconfiguring a lineup after losing a crucial centerpiece like Taylor is a months-long process. What happens when his primary replacement, Gasser, is forced to miss the rest of the season with an injury? The Badgers, like they have so many times during Ryan’s remarkable run of consistency at Wisconsin, adapt. They plug holes with developing talent that’s hardened and indoctrinated into Ryan’s foolproof system without missing a beat. Jackson played in just 17 games last season, and it’s normal to expect some initial discomfort and awkwardness when asking an inexperienced sophomore to assume control of a precise ball movement-predicated offense, but Jackson has handled the job with poise and control. Jackson isn’t a double-digit scorer or an especially creative passer. His contributions are more subtle: defense, tight ballhandling, efficiciently and willfully pushing the Badgers’ offense into high-gear. Gasser’s injury called for assistance, and Jackson responded more successfully than most anyone could have rightfully predicted.

Matchup To Watch: Northwestern’s Perimeter Defense vs. Wisconsin’s Three-point Shooting

The macro view of Northwestern’s defense, particularly in conference play, is not favorable – allowing just under 1.1 points per trip against Big Ten foes, the worst in the conference, is not the kind of performance that keeps you in contention for league championships and at-large NCAA Tournament considerations. Injuries and suspension has something to say for that, no doubt, but the fact of the matter is the Wildcats haven’t committed themselves to preventing points as much as they have scoring them, even if the difference (neither offense nor defense has been great) is blurring into one negative outlook at this stage of the season. Fair or not, the Wildcats enter Wednesday night’s game against the efficiency-recommended Badgers with a clear-cut responsibility. They must limit and contest Wisconsin’s three-point shooters. Why? Because the Badgers’ offensive splits paint a team that gets more than 35 percent of its points and 40 percent of its shot attempts from beyond the arc. Attacking that obvious stylistic emphasis could cripple, or at least stagger, Wisconsin’s offensive execution.

Prediction: Wisconsin 61, Northwestern 50

I know, I know: 50 points is low even for Northwestern’s recent standards. I just can’t get past how disjointed the Wildcats’ offense looked against Illinois, and what Wisconsin – a more disciplined and proven defensive outfit – can do to shut down Northwestern’s Princeton. This is a team entering the softest portion of its Big Ten schedule, keying in on another top-four league finish and a conference title, in a league where merely handling business against lesser competition can gravitationally pull you up the standings. And the Badgers, when locked-in, are simply a more focused, more efficient (and healthier) group than the Wildcats at this point of the season.