Spring questions at running back, offensive woes finally catch up to Wisconsin hoops and more
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Today is Monday, Feb. 13, and this is your Wisconsin Wake-Up Call.
Wisconsin will start spring practice a month from Tuesday. In the days and weeks leading up to the start of the team’s 15 practices, we’ll be taking a look at the biggest questions facing coach Paul Chryst as he begins his third year in Madison.
Is Bradrick Shaw ready to be the man?
Wisconsin loses its top two rushers from last year in Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. The duo combined for 1,881 yards and 20 touchdowns, so there is a lot of production to replace.
The Badgers third-leading rusher, Bradrick Shaw, is hoping to be the guy who gets the opportunity to fill their shoes. The redshirt sophomore ran for 457 yards and five scores in his first college action and has fans excited for his future.
But there was a reason he didn’t see the field as much as his talent indicated he perhaps should have. And the reason is what hurts a lot of young players: The coaches weren’t completely comfortable with his knowledge of the playbook and didn’t trust him in passing situations.
“He’s got to take that next step,” running backs coach John Settle said in early February. “We kind of put him in limited reps and limited packages. I’d like to see him take a bigger step of grasping more of the offense, being able to read defenses and play in the pass game and do some things in protections that he should be able to do after having a year under his belt.”
As it stands, Shaw probably isn’t ready to be the guy. And that’s actually OK, because where he might struggle in picking up blitzes and catching the ball out of the backfield, those are traits that junior Chris James appears to possess.
The transfer from Pittsburgh had to sit out this past year but will figure prominently into the offense, especially with how smooth he looks running routes and catching passes. Clement said in December that he thought James could have a similar role to Ogunbowale, who was fourth on the team in receptions with 24 last fall.
Wisconsin is a running team first and much of the offense flows out of what they can do on the ground. Shaw will play a big role in that, a role that will increase and become more significant as he adds more aspects to his game. That on-field work starts March 14, when spring practice opens.
Offensive woes finally sink Wisconsin
What happened Sunday night at the Kohl Center was inevitable and was way overdue. The Badgers magic act of escaping sure losses with a late push was not to be, as Northwestern ended Wisconsin’s 19-game home winning streak with a 66-59 victory, cutting its lead in the Big Ten to just one game over Purdue and Maryland with six to play.
The loss, though, was almost a month in the making. Yeah, Wisconsin had won eight in a row since losing to the Boilermakers on Jan. 8, but save for a 23-point win against Ohio State and a 28-point beating of Penn State, coach Greg Gard’s team had been on the ropes nightly. In the other six games in the streak, three went to overtime and none were offensive masterpieces.
Greg Gard: "Nothing that happened in this game is surprising." #Badgers
— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) February 13, 2017
Including Sunday night, when the Badgers hit just 19 of their 50 shots, they are shooting 37.5 percent since needing overtime to get by Rutgers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28. And until Northwestern finally did what the Scarlet Knights, Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska could not, the Badgers were able to brush off the issues, knowing they needed to play better offense but that they were still winning without it.
Now, after a fourth game in their last five in which they failed to score more than 60 points in regulation, there is no escaping it.
"Apparently we have to lose in order to learn the things we've already been saying."https://t.co/Z6KX2bP5nv
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) February 13, 2017
The thing is, they shouldn’t be this bad. Bronson Koenig didn’t forget how to hit 3-pointers, but he’s shooting 7 of 31 from beyond the arc over the last five games, which happens to coincide with when he suffered a calf injury that seems to be sticking with him. He had just two points against Northwestern, which combined with the Badgers having as many turnovers (12) as points in the paint, makes for a difficult outing.
Gard on Bronson Koenig: "I think the injury is a factor." #Badgers
— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) February 13, 2017
Wisconsin’s other outside shooters are also struggling. Vitto Brown, who broke out of a slump to hit 3 of his 6 attempts from deep, was a 40-percent 3-point shooter last year but is at 29 percent right now. Freshman D’Mitrik Trice, who came out shooting like gangbusters early on, has hit just 2 of 12 from 3-point land in his last five games. The only guy shooting particularly well is Zak Showalter, who was 2 of 4 on Sunday and is hitting at a career-high 37 percent for the season from beyond the arc.
But it all comes back to Koenig. If he can be himself, the guy that hits 40 percent of the 3-pointers he takes, this team can get back to being the offense that was averaging 76.7 points per game, not the team posting 62.4 a game the previous five outings.
Defense is nice, but if the Badgers want to win the Big Ten and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the shots need to start to fall, beginning with a visit to Michigan on Thursday.
Concerns prove real
A talking point this basketball season has been of how mediocre the Big Ten is and the potential that it would hurt come NCAA Tournament time. While we’re still a month away from Selection Sunday, the first-ever unveiling of the in-season, top-4 seeds in each region on Saturday showed the lack of respect for the conference is very real.
If #MarchMadness started today…
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) February 11, 2017
And maybe, accurate. It certainly looked that way on Sunday night as Wisconsin, who many thought got hosed when it didn’t appear among the top 16 seeds despite being No. 7 in the AP Top 25, couldn’t get out of its own way in a loss to a Northwestern team without its leading scorer. It made all the complaints from experts, like ESPN’s Dan Dakich, about the Badgers’ absence worthless.
And it left the Big Ten wondering if this could be the second year ever that it won’t have at least one of its teams as a top-4 seed in a region.
Wisconsin has issues, especially offensively, that it needs to fix before being considered the class of the conference, even with the Badgers still holding the best record.
The other major candidate, Purdue, has RPI top-25 wins against Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Maryland, but also losses at Nebraska, which is No. 83 and under .500, and at No. 102 Iowa. The Boilermakers have started to play their best ball as o late and could be the Big Ten’s best hope.
Maryland is 3-1 against the RPI top-50 and could bolster its hopes with a win at Wisconsin next Sunday. But the Terrapins also own losses to Nebraska and Penn State, neither of which is making the tournament.
What all this means is that, despite the better-than-average chances that half the teams in the Big Ten make the tournament, it seems unlikely any will have a favorable path to make a deep run.