Wisconsin Smashes Syracuse Zone by Getting Back to Basics

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 30th, 2016

Wisconsin‘s match-up against Syracuse last night represented a particularly concerning challenge on the offensive end of the floor. Despite an experienced core that includes two potential All-Americans in the starting lineup, Greg Gard‘s offense has been inconsistent. The Badgers made only 11 of a whopping 39 three-point attempts in their loss to Creighton. They turned the ball over 18 times against a Tennessee team that is one of the least experienced squads in the country. To bolster that point, Wisconsin has committed at least 11 turnovers in all seven of its games this season. The notion of a Badgers team easily solving Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone and its corresponding top 10 defense should have spelled disaster in Madison. Instead, they won by 17 points and showed that by simply getting back to basics, Wisconsin may very well end up being the team many expected to win the Big Ten this season.

Ethan Happ (right) had a game-high 24 points in Wisconsin's 77-60 win over Syracuse on Tuesday night. (USA Today Images)

Ethan Happ had a game-high 24 points in Wisconsin’s 77-60 win over Syracuse on Tuesday night. (USA Today Images)

The biggest takeaway from last night’s win over the Orange was just how well forward Nigel Hayes played as a facilitator. Because of his size and passing ability, the senior is the perfect player to set up shop in the middle of a zone. His repeated simple yet effective passes in high-low sets with center Ethan Happ led to a multitude of layups and dunks. Hayes has proven that he can make threes, but he’s only shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc on the season. The best move for the Wisconsin offense is to play Hayes mostly in the post with occasional flashes out to the perimeter. As Purdue has shown with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas doing likewise, the Badgers should use this option against man-to-man defensive schemes as well.

Bronson Koenig came into last night’s game shooting a woeful 25 percent from three-point range. Enjoying the open looks he received as a result of great ball movement, the senior point guard posted an offensive rating of 186.0 while shooting 6-of-9 from distance (correspondingly pushing his season average over 30 percent). Happ, to his credit, scored 24 points on only 12 field goal attempts, grabbed 13 boards and dished four assists when kickouts to open shooters were the better options. All of this can be attributed to Wisconsin’s 72.4 percent assist rate, easily representing the best it has moved the ball all season. Doing so against an opponent that has used its zone defense to smother and befuddle so many teams over the years is very impressive.

The key for Wisconsin going forward will be whether it has found the recipe for success and can translate it against good man-to-man defenses as well. It seems elementary, but the Badgers proved last night that excellent ball movement ensuring at least one touch inside on most possessions is the best way to run Gard’s offense.

Brendan Brody (307 Posts)

Brendan Brody is in his fourth season covering the Big Ten for RTC. Email him at brendan.brody@gmail.com, or follow him on twitter @berndon4.

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