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Wisconsin's Ethan Happ has owned Indiana the last three times the two teams have met.

Indiana offers Wisconsin an opportunity, spring practice position battles and looking back at 2011

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Today is Friday, March 10, and this is what’s for breakfast.


A new beginning

Wisconsin wanted Iowa. Ethan Happ admitted as much when he met with the media earlier this week in advance of the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes had just beaten the Badgers five days earlier, and Happ wanted some revenge. He won’t get that opportunity. Not after Indiana ripped Iowa on Thursday night 95-73 in Washington, D.C., setting up a matchup between the second-seeded Badgers and the No. 10 seed Hoosiers on Friday night.

Coach Greg Gard’s group won the first two meetings this season, taking Game 1 in Bloomington, 75-68, when Indiana was at full strength, and then getting by 65-60 in Madison when the Hoosiers were without stars James Blackmon Jr. and OG Anunoby. On Friday night, Anunoby still won’t be on the floor, but Blackmon will be, and he comes in red-hot after scoring 23 points and hitting 4 of 5 from beyond the arc against the Hawkeyes.

While Blackmon will be important to the outcome, Happ may be a bigger part. He’s lit Indiana up the last three times the two teams have played, averaging 21.3 points, 7 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. And if anyone could use the confidence boost that Indiana’s defense provides, it’s Happ. Even if you ignore his free-throw issues for a minute which is difficult to do you still have a guy in a slump. He’s scored in double figures just once in the last four games and is shooting 41.6 percent.

For someone that doesn’t take any shots outside the paint, that’s unacceptable.

Both teams have plenty to play for. Indiana is hoping that a run in this tournament could lead to a berth in the NCAA Tournament, while Wisconsin is looking for some confirmation that its 17-point win over Minnesota on Sunday wasn’t just a minor blip in its late-season collapse and instead be a sign of what’s to come.

This will also tell Wisconsin fans a lot. If the Badgers handle a suddenly explosive Indiana team that is playing for its postseason life, well, then, maybe a deep run over the next few weeks is possible. If they revert to their play for most of the last two months and lose to the Hoosiers, the uproar will be deafening.

Position battles

Wisconsin will open spring practice on Tuesday, and though they return a healthy number of starters from 2016, there will be plenty of competition for starting gigs throughout the roster.

What are the position battles to watch in the spring?

Quarterback

The candidates: Alex Hornibrook (RS SO), Kare Lyles (RS FR), Jack Coan (FR)

Is this really a battle? We’ll find out early on whether sophomore Alex Hornibrook is ready to grab the reins or whether redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and early enrollee Jack Coan can challenge him. Hornibrook is the clear favorite here, and the Badgers would be much better off if he’s able to claim the starting job as soon as possible.

Our pick: Hornibrook

Running back

The candidates: Bradrick Shaw (RS SO), Chris James (JR), Taiwan Deal (JR)

It’s unlikely that Wisconsin will end up handing all its carries to one back, so winning the starting job here may be irrelevant. Still, it’ll be interesting to watch as Shaw, a sophomore, and James, a junior transfer from Pitt, perform with so much at stake. Deal won’t take part in spring practice as he recovers from offseason surgery but may challenge in the fall.

Our pick: Shaw on early downs, James as third-down back

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is expecting a lot of competition for jobs when the Badgers open spring practice on March 14. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No. 2 wide receiver

The candidates: George Rushing (SR), Quintez Cephus (SO), A.J. Taylor (SO)

This is Rushing’s last chance to finally live up to the promise that he showed in his first fall camp in 2014. Cephus played as much last year as any true freshman wide receiver dating back to 2007, while Taylor also saw time. Both have big-play ability.

Our pick: Cephus

Outside linebackers:

The candidates: Garrett Dooley (SR), Zack Baun (RS SO), Christian Bell (RS FR), Andrew Van Ginkel (JR)

Outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said on National Signing Day that both spots are up for grabs with T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel now getting ready for the NFL draft. But in truth, Dooley will likely be one of the guys after filling in nicely when Biegel went down last season. Baun is crazy-athletic, Bell is a transfer from Alabama and Van Ginkel is a part of the 2017 class that enrolled early, and the team is excited about him.

Our pick: Dooley and Baun

No. 2 cornerback

The candidates: Natrell Jamerson (SR), Lubern Figaro (SR), Titus Booker (RS SO), Nick Nelson (JR), Caesar Williams (RS FR), Dontye Carriere-Williams (RS FR)

As you can see, this is a wide-open competition to start opposite senior Derrick Tindal. Jamerson, Figaro and Nelson all have experience, albeit Nelson’s coming at Hawaii, while Booker, Williams and Carriere-Williams are raw but talented. Wisconsin will likely need two or three of these guys to play a lot of snaps in its nickel and dime packages, so they aren’t fighting just for one spot.

Our pick: Jamerson and Nelson

Wisconsin in 2011

How in the world did Wisconsin lose three games in 2011?

That’s a question at least a few people were asking Thursday after former Wisconsin offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler became the highest-paid guard in NFL history, signing a deal with the Cleveland Browns that will pay him an average of $12 million per year. The signing by itself wouldn’t make most do a double take. But for Wisconsin fans, it has to feel a little bit different.

Flashback to 2011. Zeitler started at right guard for the Badgers that year. Opposite him at left guard was Travis Frederick, who has developed into one of the best centers in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and is making an average of $9.4 million per year. Next to him at left tackle was Rick Wagner, who just cashed in with the Detroit Lions to the tune of $9 million per year.

It means that the Badgers had three of the highest-paid players at their position on that line to go along with second-round pick Peter Konz at center. Add in Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson calling the signals, second-round pick Montee Ball and Super Bowl hero James White in the backfield, and it has you thinking to yourself these guys lost three games?

The group may have been the most talented on the offensive side of the ball that the program has ever fielded. Eventually, nine of the 11 starters ended up getting drafted into the NFL, and the other two spent time with teams in training camp. But even the greatest offense in school history could make up for the horrendous play of their defense that year.

Former coach Bret Bielema believed that team was one player away from winning a national title. He actually said that if cornerback Devin Smith hadn’t suffered a foot injury early in the year, the Badgers would have. And he might not be wrong. The two games they lost in the regular season both came as a result of failures in the secondary: Michigan State won on a Hail Mary and Ohio State won the following week in a similar situation.

Either way, though, the 2011 offense is the best one statistically in school history, and one that every offense going forward will be judged by. The fact that members of it are now cashing in doesn’t come as a surprise, and it should be celebrated by Wisconsin and used as much as possible on the recruiting trail.

Catching up

  • The Wisconsin basketball team lost one of its biggest fans this week.
  • Hundreds turned out at the Kohl Center to honor the late Jeff Sauer, Wisconsin’s former hockey coach who passed away last month.
  • From Jeff Potrykus at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin’s defense has been good, but Indiana will test it on Friday night.
  • Forward Nigel Hayes put out an invitation to Wisconsin’s game Friday night to a pair of music moguls.