The last two times Wisconsin basketball travelled to Evanston to play Northwestern, things got ugly. The Badgers out-everythinged the Wildcats on both occasions, building first half leads of greater than 20 (they led 40-14 at halftime in 2013-14) and physically and schematically dominating Chris Collins' team.
The Wisconsin team coming to Welsh-Ryan Arena Tuesday night isn't that Wisconsin team though. It's not even close. The Badgers are 9-8, and 1-3 in the Big Ten. They have a different coach — the legendary Bo Ryan retired in December, and assistant Greg Gard took over on an interim basis — and no where near as much talent.
To jumpstart our preview coverage of Tuesday's game, Phil Mitten of SB Nation Wisconsin site Bucky's 5th Quarter dropped by to answer some of our questions:
Inside NU: With Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Duje Dukan moving on, Nigel Hayes was supposed to step into a leading role in the frontcourt. But while his minutes are up, his efficiency is way down. Why has he struggled as more of a focal point of the offense?
Phil Mitten: The most obvious scapegoat for fans this season has been the fact that Hayes decided to rework his jump shot without input from the coaching staff. As you can see, his shooting percentages have plummeted across the board. Hayes can be an effective playmaker on the block and still gets to the line a ton, but another factor is that Hayes has always had a bit of trouble finishing around the hoop against length. You saw that against Marquette, Purdue and most recently Maryland. While he was a devastating third option last year, he no longer has the luxury of picking his spots on a team that struggles to generate offense.
INU: Same question for Bronson Koenig in the backcourt. What have his growing pains been?
PM: Koenig has always been pretty contact-averse, but again, now that the spotlight of opposing defenses is on him, he's being forced into tough jump shots with really no other dimension to his game. It was pointed out that Koenig is terrific at creating space for his jump shot when the floor is spread well, but without other reliable shooters around him, the space he has to operate in has been compressed. The cure for him is to absorb a little more contact, get some easy points at the line and keep the ball moving in the offense when nothing's there for him.Basically
INU: Have there been any noticeable on-court changes since Bo Ryan announced his retirement in December?
PM: Nothing drastic, but yes, interim head coach Greg Gard has put his stamp on things already. First of all, he expanded the rotation to include redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Hill, which gives Wisconsin a legit bench option at guard. He's also been using forward Alex Illikainen more than fellow frosh Charlie Thomas because of his shooting range to try to address those spacing problems plaguing Hayes and Koenig. The second notable shift has been the return of the Swing offense, which is another tactic Gard hopes to create better movement and spacing.
It's hard to tell how effective the changes have been. Wisconsin has been in a position to win all three games its lost since Ryan retired, but the bottom line is still ugly.
INU: Freshman center Ethan Happ was really impressive against Maryland. What's the scouting report on him, and how has he developed since the beginning of the season?
PM: Happ has one of the most interesting-looking jump shots you'll ever see and thus, doesn't really have to be guarded outside the paint yet. But he's a tenacious rebounder who has some pretty footwork down low on offense, posting six doubles-doubles so far as a redshirt freshman. However, he's also struggled finishing consistently at times and has had serious trouble at the free throw line of late. If I had to pick an area where Happ has improved this season alone, it'd be his ability to avoid foul trouble. When he's on the bench it takes away one of Wisconsin's only true post threats.
INU: Wisconsin has played three of the conference's better teams close over its past four games. Besides Happ, what were the most encouraging signs from those performances?
PM: One of the most encouraging parts has been the defense, which ranks third-best in Big Ten action right now. That's a must with the offense struggling so much currently. Going hand-in-hand with the defensive effort has been the ability of the team to stick with their game plan for 40 minutes and make a final surge in each game -- even players like Koenig who may have struggled all night coming up with clutch baskets. Unfortunately, the Badgers just haven't gotten over the hump and time is running out on that NCAA tournament streak. I should add it's also a plus to see some of the buttons Gard is pushing and knowing turnovers haven't become a problem after his inauspicious debut against Green Bay.
INU: To wrap things up, how about a prediction for Tuesday's game?
PM: No outcome would surprise me honestly. Wisconsin has played well in Evanston even before their Final Four runs, but this team just can't seem to stay sharp on offense for an entire game. I'll admit Northwestern is the better team right now, but I think Wisconsin is due. With Olah out, I think the Badgers can convert some offensive rebounds into easy buckets.
For the other half of the Q&A, my answers to Bucky's 5th Quarter's questions, click here.