Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Which is Easier to Maintain: Offense or Defense?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 27th, 2016

There are certain teams you can count on to have specific strengths seemingly every college basketball season. The high-flying athletes of North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky will score in bunches, while the rigid defensive systems of Virginia and Louisville will keep their opponents offensively flummoxed. The coaches in nearly every instance are who get credit for this year-to-year consistency, but which skill is more reliable? Is it easier to be a really good offensive team every year or a really good defensive one? In order to find out, we turned to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to actually determine if the same teams — or, more accurately, the same coaches — always finish at the top of their respective area of strength. We defined this as being among the top 25 offensive or defensive efficiency teams for five years in a row. Here are the results.

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Offensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Defensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Florida’s Mike White and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard are only second-year coaches at their programs, but both have already shown such an aptitude for defensively-effective basketball that it seems appropriate to include them. With or without those two, though, it seems that it is much easier to produce a great defense year in and year out than it is for offense.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Race for a Top NCAA Seed Begins Early in the Big Ten

Posted by Shane McNichol on November 29th, 2016

At least one team has represented the Big Ten at the Final Four in six of the last nine NCAA Tournaments and seeding is a big part of that. Big Ten teams have been awarded a #1 seed in four of those nine tourneys with seven more conference teams receiving #2 seeds over that period. Being projected among the mix to win the conference title usually means that the jockeying for March begins right away. In the season’s first two weeks, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana all had great chances to put themselves in the Big Ten pole position before conference play even begins. Yes, the NCAA Tournament is still three and a half months away, but the Selection Committee weights all games the same regardless of when they are played. Parsing through the first handful of games among this trio allows us a chance to see which, if any, teams took an early head start in the race for a top-two NCAA Tournament seed.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament.

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament. (AP)

The Spartans’ early struggles have been well-documented so there’s no reason to re-hash them here. With three losses already on the books and a very difficult game at Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight, dreams of a #1 seed have been all but dashed in East Lansing. In the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, only one school has been awarded a top seed with seven or more regular season losses — Michigan State in 2012. With games at Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland still to come (not to mention several other potentially tricky road tilts as well as home games against Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin), the Spartans are very likely to surpass that loss figure. The loss of Denzel Valentine and his 28.9 percent usage rate has proven difficult to replace, as the capable role players around him last season have so far failed to step up. Instead, it has been freshmen like Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston who have sparked the Spartans during their better moments. Tom Izzo hasn’t yet found the right combinations but history suggests that he will do so. Whether he can manage to turn things around quickly enough to push Michigan State into the discussion for a #2 seed is an open question.

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Big Ten Preseason Superlatives: POY, COY, FrOY

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 11th, 2016

The season-opening tip-offs are set for tonight and the RTC Big Ten microsite has arrived at our predictions for the coming year. We’ve huddled our clairvoyant minds together and selected our conference preseason Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, and Coach of the Year. Some of these predictions are likely to miss, but the three individual profiled below are definitely worth keeping a close eye on during the regular season.

Thomas Bryant is the RTC Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (USA Today Images).

Thomas Bryant is the RTC Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (USA Today Images).

Player of the Year: Thomas Bryant, Indiana. This was by no means a unanimous choice among our group. While we believe our other two Badger candidates — Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ — will each also have a terrific season, we settled on Bryant for a couple of reasons. First, he is one of the nation’s most talented big men in an offense full of second options — expect him to significantly improve on his 11.9 PPG and 5.8 RPG freshman tallies with an added a year of experience. Second, he is the anchor of a reigning Big Ten champion that is expected to contend for a second consecutive title and a deep NCAA Tournament run. Given the talent and opportunity here, we believe that Bryant is ready for a monster year.

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Can Nigel Hayes Become the Face of Big Ten Basketball?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 26th, 2016

As we look ahead to the upcoming season, an immediate question arises about the Big Ten conference: Is there a dynamic personality among the league’s players who can represent the conference as well as Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine did last year? Or how Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell caught the league by surprise with his incredible poise and court vision two years ago? Who is that player this season? In several ways, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes seems to be the most legitimate candidate to represent the Big Ten in 2016-17. After three years in college with two Final Four appearances to his credit, Hayes’ game should be more mature than ever. His team, with Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ as his sidekicks, also appears ready to make some national noise. And based on his recent showing at ESPN’s College Gameday, Hayes seems poised to make a splash beyond just joking around with the media.

Hayes’ junior year wasn’t as much of a breakout season that many had expected. While he led the Badgers in scoring (15.7 PPG) and was selected First Team All-Big Ten, he faltered in the NCAA Tournament and it was clear to observers that the emergence of Happ alongside him required an adjustment. In an effort to create space in new head coach Greg Gard’s system, Hayes had a tendency to shoot too many three-pointers, only 29.3 percent of which found the mark. With NPOY Frank Kaminsky manning the post two seasons ago, Hayes shot a sterling 39.6 percent from three-point range. Now that Hayes has had a full offseason to learn the subtleties of Gard’s offense, expect improvement in that area this season. His ability to play both inside and out is a matchup nightmare for opposing forwards generally uncomfortable with that level of offensive versatility.. Read the rest of this entry »

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Where 2016-17 Happens: Reason #29 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on October 14th, 2016

As RTC heads into its 10th season — Season X, if you will — covering college basketball, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Friday, November 11. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#29 – Where Death. Taxes. Greg Gard. Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15 and 2015-16 preseasons.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Wisconsin 47, #10 Pittsburgh 43

Posted by Nate Kotisso on March 18th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

It was a rock fight in every sense of the phrase as the Badgers scooted past Pittsburgh on Friday night. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

It was a rock fight in every sense of the phrase as the Badgers scooted past Pittsburgh on Friday night. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. You Care About the Result of this Game. Why? This was a #7-#10 game between two teams who will more than likely not make the Final Four. The Panthers scored 22 points in the first half! The Badgers made 6-of-24 and still trailed by six points heading into the locker room! Both teams combined for 73 rebounds! That’s a lot of misses! If you weren’t obligated to attend the game, you should not have watched this game. Michigan State lost so your bracket is already in shambles. This game wasn’t going to change your fortunes for the better. If you voluntarily watched this game, you don’t have a case of March Madness. March Derangement? Perhaps.
  2. Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ Has Very Good Footwork and More: After averaging 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game coming into today, it’s not hard to see why he was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. At 6’8″, Happ is undersized but showed off a couple spin moves on the baseline that led to two buckets around the rim. Happ finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot. Again, he’s only a freshman, which should strike fear into the rest of the Big Ten for (possibly) years to come.
  3. The Badgers Needed a Presidential “Vitto” and Got One: In this offensively-challenged affair, Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown nailed three of his team’s four threes that kept the Badgers afloat long enough for the rest of the team to rescue him.

Star of the Game: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin. The stat line for Happ was ridiculous. A 15-9-3-2-1 evening will earn this honor nine times out of 10.

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Big Ten Tournament Storylines to Watch

Posted by Alex Moscoso on March 9th, 2016

The postseason has started and that means we get to enjoy five days of nonstop tournament basketball in Indianapolis. There is always a lot of drama to dig into during the Big Ten Tournament — rubber matches; teams angling for at-large bids and seeding; games between old rivals. We’re likely to see all of that and more after the tournament tips off this afternoon at 4:30 PM ET. In the interest of breaking down the event into four key storylines, here is your crib sheet for the week to come.

Without Caris Lever, Derrick Walton Jr. will need to lead the Wolverines to a respectable showing in the Big Ten Tournament to escape the bubble. (credit: ap.org)

Without Caris Levert, Derrick Walton Jr. will need to lead the Wolverines to a respectable showing in the Big Ten Tournament to escape the bubble. (AP)

  1. All eyes on Michigan State. Indiana may have won the Big Ten title outright, but it is Tom Izzo‘s Spartans that are the heavy favorites to win this tournament. Why is Michigan State such a big favorite? Try this: Sparty has the best player in the country; Izzo already owns four tournament titles; it’s the hottest team in the league, having won 10 of their last 11 games. To put it simply, the Spartans have been in March form for a while now.
  2. Michigan is on the wrong side of the bubble. Oh, how the Wolverines have fallen. At the turn of league play, Michigan owned a 7-2 Big Ten record and was in serious contention for the conference title. The Wolverines then went 3-6 in the second half of conference play and are generally viewed as a team with quite a bit of work to do this week. A 3-9 record against the RPI top 50 means that John Beilein‘s team will likely need to make an appearance in Sunday’s championship game to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That would require a win over Indiana as well as Purdue or Iowa, a tall order for a team that typically hasn’t fared well against top competition. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten M5: 03.04.16 Edition

Posted by Patrick Engel on March 4th, 2016

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  1. When Bo Ryan retired as Wisconsin’s head coach in December, many thought he wanted to give his longtime assistant, Greg Gard, a trial period so that athletic director Barry Alvarez would seriously consider him for the full-time position. If that was Ryan’s intent, the move appears to have worked. On Thursday, The Milwaukee (Wisc.) Journal-Sentinel reported that Wisconsin is prepared to offer Gard a long-term contract. Gard has led the Badgers to a 12-5 Big Ten record, which includes 11 wins in their last 12 games.
  2. Two Big Ten players were named to the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-America team on Thursday: Nebraska’s Shavon Shields and Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff. Shields, who owns a 3.72 GPA in biological sciences, made the team for the second straight year. Uthoff had a 4.0 GPA in the fall semester while pursuing his graduate degree and has a 3.42 overall GPA and with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Iowa.
  3. Northwestern will be a frontcourt player short for the rest of the season. Head coach Chris Collins announced Wednesday that graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury suffered in Monday’s practice. The Netherlands native was averaging 3.6 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. Collins said that sophomore forward Gavin Skelly could play center if primary centers Alex Olah and Dererk Pardon get into foul trouble.
  4. Although conference tournament season hasn’t even begun for the Big Ten, non-conference tournaments for next fall are already announcing participants. On Wednesday, The Cancun Challenge announced a Big Ten team as one of its eight participants. Purdue will play in the Challenge’s Riviera Division, where they will join Texas Tech, Utah State and Auburn. The tournament will be played Nov. 22 and 23.
  5. On Tuesday, Richard Pitino decided to make the one-game suspension of guards Nate Mason, Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer a season-long one. Pitino did not comment on the reason for the suspension, but a sexually explicit video posted on Dorsey’s Twitter account is the believed cause. Dorsey’s family says that cannot the case. In a statement faxed to the Twin Cities (Minn.) Pioneer Press, Dorsey’s family said he could not have posted the video because his phone was stolen at Minnesota’s Mall of America two days before the video surfaced. Bloomington (Minn.) police said they are investigating a phone theft at the mall and that there is video evidence of it being taken from a store there.
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