Wisconsin Slowly Finding Its New Identity

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on February 1st, 2016

The first half of January wasn’t kind to Wisconsin. Losing its first three games by an average of just three points per contest to Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern put the Badgers behind the Big Ten eight-ball. As we now head into February, however, Greg Gard‘s new team seems to be slowly recovering just in time for the back half of the league schedule. Four straight wins to finish January has delivered some hope of making a run toward an NCAA Tournament bid, but to make that a reality, the Badgers will need to find answers to the following three questions.

Nigel Hayes will need to mix up his game to be effective with Ethan Happ.

Nigel Hayes will need to mix up his game to be effective with Ethan Happ.

  • Can Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes continue to effectively share the low post? The Badgers’ freshman star, Happ, isn’t a secret anymore. After averaging almost 20 PPG in wins over Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana, he drew consistent double teams from Illinois on Sunday. While he was able to pass the ball capably out of the post yesterday, there is a risk that Happ could slow down the offense if he starts to force bad shots in those situations. He and Hayes have been clicking inside together during the winning streak, but that trend will continue into the stretch run only if Hayes can remain active without the ball. The junior has struggled from the perimeter this season, making only 30 percent of his three-point attempts, so having him stand on the wing looking for jumpers while Happ works inside isn’t the long-term solution.

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How Will Traevon Jackson’s Return Impact the Badgers?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 26th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

There isn’t much stopping Wisconsin’s offensive stride right now. The Badgers won the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships by averaging a whopping 1.21 points per possession despite playing the last 17 games of the season without senior point guard Traevon Jackson, who broke his foot on January 11. Some observers thought that the injury would set the Badgers back on both ends of the court but Wisconsin instead has held strong with its only loss since coming at Maryland. Sophomore replacement Bronson Koenig has done a terrific job of running the offense by hanging on to the ball, distributing it in the right spots and shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc.

Traevon Jackson's confidence to take big shots during the final minutes of key games will be needed over the Sweet 16 weekend of Wisconsin.

Traevon Jackson’s confidence to take big shots for Wisconsin during the final minutes of key games will be needed in the Sweet Sixteen and possibly beyond. (Getty)

Jackson said yesterday that he has confidence in his foot and he is “100 percent” ready to play against North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. With two more wins needed to reach the program’s second consecutive Final Four, it is an intriguing dilemma for Bo Ryan to determine how many minutes Jackson should play. The argument against inserting him completely back into the rotation is that the move could disturb the seamless rhythm of what has been an offensive juggernaut. The argument for playing him is that he was the starter of last season’s Final Four squad and it’s not as if the Badgers were doing poorly before he was injured (15-1 with the sole loss coming to Duke). Ryan will definitely play his senior point guard some minutes tonight, but the question is how much and in what spots? The reason that this is a particularly difficult decision for the head coach is because Koenig has been a more effective player than Jackson.

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Evaluating Rayvonte Rice’s Career at Illinois

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 8th, 2015

Despite averaging 16.0 PPG over two seasons in Champaign, Rayvonte Rice’s Illinois career has had several bumps along the way. There is no argument about his offensive ability but his leadership could be called into question because the Illini — depending on the next seven days — have not made an NCAA Tournament on his watch. He struggled during Big Ten competition last season as the Illini lost eight straight at one point, and although the team has been better during his senior season, he hasn’t been able to close out some games because he was too predictable. If the Illini get back to the NCAAs next week, all may be forgiven; but assuming they do not after a tough loss to Purdue yesterday, let’s examine the three primary reasons why Rice’s game didn’t translate to more wins at Illinois.

Rayvonte Rice Has Had an Up and Down Illinois Career (USA Today Images)

Rayvonte Rice Has Had an Up and Down Illinois Career (USA Today Images)

  1. Over-reliance on the long-range shot and predictable moves. Rice’s athleticism is too much to handle during the non-conference season because most of those teams don’t have defenders with enough strength to prevent him from getting to the rim. Big Ten defenders, however, are just as strong as him, and the coaches are too smart to allow him to get to the basket off of screens. Double-teams are common when he comes off screens to his right as opposing defenders force him to shoot from beyond the arc. His junior season was plagued with horrible shot selection, attempting 156 threes and only making 30 percent of them. Frustrations mounted during his slumps as he continued to force shots instead of sharing the ball with his younger teammates. The insertions of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn into the starting lineup last season helped to ease the burden somewhat, but it came a bit too late. Rice should have let the game come to him and relied more on his teammates. Read the rest of this entry »
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Minnesota Already in Rough Shape in the Big Ten Race

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 7th, 2015

Some might have considered the Ohio State vs. Minnesota game on Tuesday night an interesting match-up but not necessarily one with postseason implications. The new year has just begun. Teams have barely played 15 games, and the conference season is just picking up. So why would it matter? Well, for a Gophers’ team that hasn’t earned a quality win yet despite an 11-5 start to the season, an 0-3 beginning to Big Ten play doesn’t bode well for the future. A home win against Ohio State is exactly what the team needed, but the Gophers, despite a valiant second half comeback, just couldn’t finish it off. Here are three thoughts from the overtime thriller:

Richard Pitino's Gophers blew a golden opportunity at the Barn on Tuesday night.

Richard Pitino’s Gophers blew a golden opportunity at the Barn on Tuesday night.

  1. Credit Andre Hollins for his defense against D’Angelo Russell in the second half. Russell was on fire in the first half, scoring 25 points including 5-of-6 from beyond the arc and making Hollins look like a tired senior trying to keep up with a stud freshman. The second half, however, was a completely different story, as Hollins hit a big three-pointer in the first minute and showed that he was ready to lock down Russell by pressuring him full-court. His improved intensity allowed him to fight over the screens, bumping Russell off balance as he tried to turn the corner. This defensive tweak along with pushing him to the corners worked perfectly, as Russell was held scoreless during the rest of regulation (he finished with 27 points). If Hollins had played with half of his second half intensity from the start, the Gophers probably wouldn’t be left with with an 0-3 Big Ten record. Read the rest of this entry »
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Three Takeaways from Maryland’s Huge Win Over Michigan State

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 31st, 2014

Despite entering its conference opener against Michigan State with a 12-1 record, Vegas listed Maryland as a six-point underdog in its Big Ten debut. A potential reason for this could have been that Tom Izzo had never lost a Big Ten opener at the Breslin Center and Mark Turgeon’s squad was expected to struggle against a defensive-minded team such as Michigan State. Despite these doubts, the Terps pulled out a gutsy win in double-overtime — a victory cementing the notion that Maryland can survive a tough Big Ten schedule and potentially challenge Wisconsin for the conference title. Here are three key takeaways that explain some of what happened in last night’s game:

Dez Wells led the Terps to a huge win over the Spartans on Tuesday.  (Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback)

Dez Wells led the Terps to a huge win over the Spartans on Tuesday. (Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback)

  1. Maryland outrebounded Michigan State by 16 boards. Mark Turgeon’s squad is generally considered weak on the rebounding front because the Terps have a bunch of stretch forwards attempting to hold their own on the glass. Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz weren’t expected to outdo Michigan State’s more durable big men like Branden Dawson and Gavin Schilling, but the pair came up with 17 boards, same as their Michigan State counterparts. The small-ball lineup could hurt the Terps in the long run, but its versatility helped them in East Lansing: Dez Wells and Richaud Pack combined for 12 rebounds from the wings and they came up with a number of key offensive boards during overtime. If they can depend on Smotycz for outside shooting and still rely on Layman or Wells to crash the boards, that gives Turgeon plenty of options. Damonte Dodd also did an excellent job neutralizing Dawson in the final minutes of the game — a key substitution that worked out well. Read the rest of this entry »
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Nebraska in Trouble: Desperately Seeking Quality Wins

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 29th, 2014

About six weeks ago during our preseason Big Ten conference podcast, I made a bold prediction that Nebraska would finish second to Wisconsin in the conference race. Predicting conference standings eight weeks before league play begins is tough as it is, but few predictions could appear to be more off than that one. The Huskers are now 8-4 heading into Big Ten play, with a semi-quality win over Cincinnati, a couple of bad losses to Hawaii and Incarnate Word, and not much else to show for it. Teams have dug themselves out of these kinds of starts to still make the NCAA Tournament, but the overall weakness of the Big Ten this year puts Nebraska in a precarious spot because there aren’t many more high-quality wins to be had. A 12-6 Big Ten record along with wins over the presumptive top teams such as Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State could give Tim Miles a legitimate case for his team’s inclusion (currently #87 nationally), but a schedule that includes only two home games against that group will hurt his chances.

Tim Miles, Colorado State

Tim Miles’ Huskers don’t have enough opportunities in the Big Ten season to dig themselves out of a poor non-conference season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The losses to Incarnate Ward and Hawaii — both currently rated by KenPom in the mid-to-low 100s — won’t be forgiven. The Rhode Island loss (#51) isn’t too bad on paper but the Rams may struggle to rise from that number in the competitive Atlantic 10. The only other reasonable loss is to #76 Creighton, and that is mitigated by the fact that it occurred at home. The Cornhuskers’ first four Big Ten games include #44 Indiana, #41 Iowa, #155 Rutgers and #42 Illinois – all beatable teams. But just one slip-up against those four and you might as well stick a fork in this group as a potential NCAA Tournament team. The four opponents after that are #4 Wisconsin, #27 Minnesota, #22 Michigan State and #80 Michigan. Two of that group (Michigan is on thin ice) are likely to get NCAA bids and Nebraska probably needs to secure three wins during that stretch to build its own case for inclusion. The second half of the Big Ten schedule includes Wisconsin again as well as #11 Ohio State in Columbus and #24 Maryland twice. But if Nebraska hasn’t come through its first half with a solid 5-3 or better record, it may not much matter how the Cornhuskers perform the rest of the season.

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Illinois’ Point Guard Conundrum Continues

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 17th, 2014

Remember when the Illini had three guards who could man the offense with no trouble from 2003-05? Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown could set up the offense without any confusion, move the ball around with confidence, and pull up for a three without any issues if the shot clock was winding down. Yep, that was about 10 years ago. Since the trio left Champaign, though, Illinois has struggled to find a consistent point guard comfortable with both distributing the ball and creating his own shot. Chester Frazier didn’t really have a consistent jumper. Demetri McCamey was versatile on the offense but he couldn’t consistently involve his teammates. Brandon Paul was a combo guard, and while Tracy Abrams commanded respect from his teammates, he just didn’t have enough quickness to utilize his offensive moves and still carry a consistent assist rate. With Abrams now gone, there was a glimmer of hope that incoming transfer Ahmad Starks could be the efficient point guard to finally lead an offense that could launch the program back into the Big Ten elite. But after the first month of the season, the situation appears as bad as the last few seasons in that regard.

Ahmad Starks hasn't been able to exceed Tracy Abrams' performance from last season so far this year.

Ahmad Starks hasn’t been able to exceed Tracy Abrams’ performance from last season so far this year.

Starks’ game has several positives: He is quick to get around screens and has a much better looking three-point shot than Abrams. While a 35 percent mark from three isn’t all that impressive, his average is more a result of poor shot selection than mechanics. He also hasn’t been able to connect with his teammates during the second half of important games. Let’s take the latest loss to Oregon as an example. Even though Illinois assisted on 17 of its successful field goals, the offense looked completely clueless when it mattered. If the ball went inside to the low post, it never came back out. There was no lateral movement. If Starks couldn’t break his defender down, he dumped it over to Malcolm Hill who did the same – scoring only six points. The same goes for Aaron Cosby and Kendrick Nunn. Illini shot a respectable 37 percent from beyond the arc but taking 19 shots from there is concerning. There is no point guard who can set up plays that require ball movement and could actually result in a decent-looking shot in the waning minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Denzel Valentine Contributing More than Intangibles for Michigan State

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 12th, 2014

After a month of watching non-conference games and nodding our heads at the sloppiness of the action, it is time to evaluate whether certain players will have a significant impact through the remainder of the season. We knew that Michigan State would need to find a leader on the offensive end, but after the departures of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, there were no clear candidates for that role. And while Branden Dawson is a monster on the glass, his jumpers are still cringe-worthy. Travis Trice, on the other hand, has a nice jumper but has trouble create space off the dribble to create his own shot. Denzel Valentine’s name, though, was mostly buried within all the preseason analysis because it was tough to view him as anything more than a glue guy. There was no doubt that he would play a key role for the Spartans this season, but his impact was supposed to be felt with the intangibles — things like hustle, grit and defense. But after averaging 14.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 4.0 APG through Michigan State’s first 10 games, Valentine has shown that he’s capable of more than being just a nice defender and occasional spot-up shooter. Rather, he is the best scoring option Tom Izzo has, and his burgeoning offensive game could turn the Spartans into a legitimate contender to win the conference.

It is more than clear that Michigan State's main scoring option is Denzel Valentine. (Eric Gay, AP)

It is more than clear that Michigan State’s main scoring option is Denzel Valentine. (Eric Gay, AP)

While it might be surprising that the junior has been more offensively assertive this season, there were signs over his first two years that he always had the ability to step up. Every Spartan fan will recall Appling’s more than occasional disappearing act during key games, and when he folded, Valentine was the off-guard who usually picked up the pieces by handling the ball during key possessions. Between the departed trio’s shot rates (19-29%), Valentine wasn’t likely to get many looks, but the floodgates have opened this year. The combo guard scored 25 points against both Marquette and Notre Dame, as his shot rate has increased from 17% to over 23% of available looks while he’s on the floor. No other Spartan seemed to want to take a shot during the second half against the Irish, and Valentine obliged by seemingly pulling the trigger on every possession. This is not to say that those were forced shots, either; they were good shots coming off screens, pulling up from from the elbow as he moved to the right.  Read the rest of this entry »

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How Wisconsin Can Use Sam Dekker Better Offensively

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 4th, 2014

Even though Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker grew to 6’9″ during the summer and brought two full years of experience into his junior season, there remained concerns about his assertiveness during big games. He is extremely talented with a quick trigger and excellent form on his jumper, but Dekker seems to consistently struggle against superior competition and has a tendency to go through long stretches of the game when you wonder if he is even on the court. Last night’s loss to Duke was no different: In 24 minutes of action, Dekker shot only 2-of-5 from the field and scored five points. More concerning than his low scoring output was his sheer number of shot attempts — how could a player with so much talent take only five shots? While it is easy to blame him for laziness in hanging around the three-point line on the offensive end, it may be worth discussing if Wisconsin’s offense instead needs to better structured around him. A closer examination of last night’s game hints how his specific skill set within the offensive scheme is being ineffectively used.

Bo Ryan needs to find more ways to keep Sam Dekker engaged in the half-court offense (Jim Polzin, Wisconsin State Journal)

Bo Ryan needs to find more ways to keep Sam Dekker engaged in the half-court offense (Jim Polzin, Wisconsin State Journal)

The heralded Badgers offense that averaged upwards of 1.1 points per possession last season is packed with scoring talent. Frank Kaminsky is as good as advertised (17 points) and Bo Ryan makes a conscious effort to give the big guy the ball for many of the team’s possessions. Senior guard Traevon Jackson has consistently proven that he can control the offense in the half-court and is not afraid to take a big shot during crunch time (25 points). Ryan called isolation plays for Kaminsky in the low post during the second half, and when double-teamed, he kicked the ball out for Jackson to penetrate the lane. This two-man combination worked well for much of the game, but it stifled the offense over the last six minutes when Duke finished off the Badgers. It is easy to blame Dekker for not actively wanting the ball, but every time he had it, he had no choice but to dump it back into the low post or swing it from one side to the other. Expecting him to take the ball into a one-on-one situation at the top of the key is unfair and could also disturb the overall offensive rhythm. Keeping this in mind, Ryan should consider supplementing his offense by running specific plays for Dekker in the half-court.

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John Groce May Finally Have His Flexible Backcourt

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on November 25th, 2014

Four games up and four games down for the Illini. Yes, we know it is early but it is really tough not to wonder if this is the best backcourt John Groce has had during his time in Champaign. He was hired from Ohio after a surprising run to the Sweet 16 when the Bobcats’ offense, led by D.J.Cooper, burst through the first two rounds in March by running a high-powered offense with multiple ball-handlers and shooters. Groce’s first two seasons have been sub-part at Illinois but his track record shows that his offensive system can raise havoc, given the right type of talent. That talent includes ball-handling skills from at least three positions on the floor. After three straight games of scoring 100 games, albeit against weaker competition, the Illini offense looks very promising because of five combo guards who can be dangerous with the rock. The rotation includes Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby, Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Five of them have been playing at least 20 minutes game and they provide Groce with multiple options.

John Groce has five wings that should be fun to watch this season.

John Groce has five wings that should be fun to watch this season.

Both incoming transfers, Starks and Cosby, shot at least 40% from beyond the arc in their prior lives away from Champaign. Shooting skill doesn’t hurt but it is their ball-handling ability that’s more impressive. Tracy Abrams’ loss for the season could have hurt the Illini because he had a good understanding of the offense after two seasons but Starks and Cosby aren’t too far behind. Let’s not forget that they sat out a whole season after the transfer to Illini and practiced with the team, waiting and chomping at an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the Orange Krush. Remember last season when Rice was terrific during the first 10 games because he was fully prepared after training with the team? Same goes for Starks and Cosby. Speaking of Rice, he doesn’t have to worry about carrying the offense this season because he is surrounded by shooters. Instead, he can play the wing position and take advantage of backdoor cuts and fast-break opportunities. He was a volume scorer last season which hurt his rhythm during key stretches of the conference season – that doesn’t need to happen this year because Groce can save him for crunch time.

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