Wisconsin Has the Best Defensive Backcourt in the Big TenPosted by Deepak Jayanti on February 22nd, 2013
Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.
During the preseason, it was clear that the Big Ten was loaded and well respected by the pollsters because four teams – Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State – were ranked among the top-15 in the nation. Despite the conference’s depth, the historically overlooked Wisconsin Badgers received some well-deserved respect and were also ranked in the Top 25. But after Josh Gasser’s season-ending injury before the season even started combined with four non-conference losses – Florida, Creighton, Marquette, and Virginia – Ryan’s team dropped out of the rankings and had to sort out their issues with the backcourt. Big Ten Nation of course was well aware that Ryan has never finished worse than fourth in the conference since he took over in Madison. The conference season re-ignited the Badgers and now they stand once again as one of the top teams in league play with a 10-4 record. Despite the lack of offensive firepower due to Gasser’s injury and the departure of All-America guard Jordan Taylor, his backcourt mates Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson have locked down some of the best guards in the conference to make Wisconsin a strong contender for the Big Ten title and beyond.
Before we discuss Brust and Jackson’s defensive impact, let’s review the numbers to prove that they are the best defensive backcourt in a league filled with offensive talent. The Badgers rank first in two key defensive categories: opponents’ effective FG% (41.1%) and opponents’ long-range shooting (26.2% 3FG). All of the top guards in the Big Ten – Trey Burke, Keith Appling, Jordan Hulls and Andre Hollins – have been a victim of this killer defense from the Badgers’ backcourt. Ryan’s teams have always been known for their intensity on defense and they ranked second in those categories during 2012 as well. Their opponents shot 29% from three last season, still three percent higher than this year. This boost in Wisconsin’s perimeter defense has resulted in the Badgers allowing just 0.91 points per possession compared to 0.96 last year. This shows that Brust and Jackson have been a great duo who understand their roles and execute Ryan’s defensive game plans very effectively.
Brust’s ability to scout great shooting guards and locking them up can be studied using the Indiana game in Bloomington as an example. Hulls, who is arguably the best long-range shooter in the country (49% 3FG), couldn’t even get more than one shot up from beyond arc against Brust’s stifling defense. A senior guard who takes five attempts from long range was held to just a single shot attempt and that speaks volumes about Brust’s defensive intensity. All-American guard Burke doesn’t have a great long-range jumper (39% 3FG) but opponents must respect his shot along with his teammate Nik Stauskas (47% 3FG). Both of them were held to a combined 3-of-13 from three against Brust and Jackson. Jackson has covered the second best guard on offense but he is almost as impressive as Brust because he is practically a freshman in terms of playing time — he played just 5.4 MPG last year but has stepped up in Gasser’s absence to average 26.7 MPG this season. Neither will overpower you on defense but they will certainly make sure if they lose a game, it won’t be because of that. For example, during two of their losses to Iowa and Minnesota, they held each team to 2-of-10 and 4-of-17 shooting from deep, respectively. They lost the games because they couldn’t score that night, not because they let their man beat them.
It is possible that Brust and Jackson’s lack of pure athleticism helps them become better defenders because they stick to the defensive game plan and don’t always try to go for the highlight plays. They won’t wow you like Indiana’s Victor Oladipo by cutting off passing lanes to steal the ball and throw it down on the other end in transition. On the flip side, they might not make the highlight reel like Aaron Craft for their stellar on-ball defense. If the plan requires them to keep the opposing ball-handler in front of them, they will give the opposing guard just enough room to keep them from penetrating off the dribble. Both Hulls and Burke have certain favorite spots on the floor – Hulls, for example, likes go to his left off a screen on the perimeter to pull up for a three, while Burke loves to hit the step-back three pointer. Neither of those shots have a high percentage of success if they are just limited to only those spots because it could lead to frustration and that’s exactly what Brust did when matched up against them. He practically hugged Hulls for most of the game and he forced Burke to become a “volume shooter” from difficult spots on the floor. Smart defensive game plans, when executed well, don’t always result in a high number of turnovers but they will result in success and the Badgers’ wins over Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State have been prime examples of that execution.
Continuing with the theme about roles, it helps that neither of these Badgers are asked to carry the load on the offensive end, and as a result, they are more effective on both ends of the floor. For example, Taylor was a good defender last year but he needed to take charge on the offensive end which naturally tired him out but for on a few defensive possessions here and there. There is no true star on this Badgers team because Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Brust share the offensive load equally, so they can be effective on both ends of the floor as a result. Ryan’s team will need to hit some shots and can’t afford to slump if they want to make it to another Sweet Sixteen or beyond in March, but for now their defense is carrying them in the nation’s best conference, thanks to the efforts of Brust and Jackson.