The college basketball postseason begins Friday for Wisconsin.
While the Badgers are certainly in a different place than they were a month ago — when they led the Big Ten by two games and were ranked in the top 10 — they remain the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament with their eyes squarely on the top prize.
To win it, they’re going to need the same strong defense and rebounding they’ve had all season, some players to step up on offense and a whole lot of Ethan Happ. Tipoff is scheduled Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT on the Big Ten Network.
The Badgers are in Washington, D.C., to win the Big Ten Tournament and salvage their seeding for the NCAA Tournament. That’s really all that’s left for a group that was seen as the top team in the conference for a healthy chunk of the season, but was still left off the NCAA Tournament committee’s top 16 even before losing five of six.
Win the Big Ten Tournament, and the Badgers might even be able to open March Madness in Milwaukee, an opening-round site where the Badgers played before an almost uniformly home crowd in the 2014 NCAA Tournament (their first Final Four).
No win was more important for Wisconsin this season than its victory Sunday over Minnesota. That win gave Wisconsin the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten instead of the No. 4 seed, where the Gophers landed instead. Rather than likely having to face Tom Izzo and Michigan State (never fun in the Big Ten Tournament), then probably tournament favorite Purdue in the semifinals, the Badgers receive either Indiana or Iowa, followed by Maryland or Northwestern in all likelihood.
To be clear, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and Northwestern aren’t walkovers, but Wisconsin is almost certainly seeing the softer side of the bracket.
The Badgers have their starters figured out and have had them figured out all season outside of when D’Mitrik Trice had to spell an injured Bronson Koenig. Opening the game on Friday will almost certainly be Koenig, Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes and Happ.
It’s the bench that gets a little more difficult to figure out. The Wisconsin roster has six different players who are averaging between 5 and 20 minutes per game, and which bench players see significant action in each game has been something of a crapshoot, with Trice and Khalil Iverson the only constants. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard has also recently been experimenting with a three-guard lineup, so Wisconsin could be putting a different crew on the floor than usual in the next week.
|Name||Minutes/game||Usage rate||Points/game||Rebounds/game||Assists/game||Field goal %||True shooting %|
Round 1 opponent
Wisconsin will learn its opponent on Thursday when No. 7 seed Iowa and No. 10 Indiana play at 5:30 p.m. CT on ESPN 2. The Badgers were recently stunned by Jordan Bohannon and Iowa at the Kohl Center and would probably be happy to have another shot at the Hawkeyes, who are a bubble team on their last chance to improve their NCAA Tournament resume.
✅ TV/Radio 4️⃣1️⃣1️⃣
— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 7, 2017
An Indiana team that will likely go down as the Big Ten’s biggest disappointment in conference play would be the easier opponent for Wisconsin. The Badgers beat the Hoosiers both home and away this season to continue their exceptional success against Indiana coach Tom Crean, who is 2-17 against Wisconsin during his time in Bloomington.
Players to watch
Ethan Happ: In a world where Frank Kaminsky doesn’t exist, we’d be discussing whether Happ is the greatest center in Wisconsin history, or at least on his way there. Of course, he developed some of his considerable defensive skills guarding Kaminsky on the scout team during his redshirt year, so who knows.
What we do know is that Happ right now is an elite defender, elite rebounder, gifted passer for a big man and the top low-post scorer in the conference. His free throws and jump shot remain comically bad, but, remember, he is a sophomore. He’s one of only two Wisconsin sophomores to ever be named first-team All-Big Ten, the other being Michael Finley. He is the Wisconsin player to watch now and for the next two years.
Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes: These two seniors really deserve a spot together, as it was Hayes’ inconsistency and Koenig’s injury that helped lead Wisconsin’s slide down the Big Ten standings. Happ can’t do everything on offense when he’s getting double-teamed at all times; he needs secondary scorers like these two when they’re on their game. The Badgers will likely need Happ and at least one of these two to step up if they even want to make it to the finals.
Khalil Iverson: There are plenty of reasons why Iverson is an important player. He is Wisconsin’s best athlete, a gifted rebounder for his size and seems to be the team’s only reliable forward off the bench. But the reason he’s included here is because he can do stuff like the tweet embedded below.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 25, 2017
Numbers to know
Points allowed per game, 61.6: Wisconsin allows fewer points than any team in the Big Ten, and that’s not just because its slow pace artificially depresses scoring. It also ranks on top of the Big Ten in KenPom’s defensive ratings and boasts two players, Happ (more on him below) and Showalter, on the All-Big Ten Defensive Team, with Hayes being no slouch when it comes to guarding more athletic forwards. All season, the Badgers’ blueprint to consistent success has been to shut their opponent down on defense and dominate rebounding enough that it doesn’t matter how many shots they miss.
Ethan Happ steals per game, 2.0: Minnesota’s Reggie Lynch won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year thanks to his 106 blocks that lead the Big Ten by a huge margin, but Happ has an argument as the superior defender. Most of that argument lies in advanced stats, but a traditional stat that stands out is Happ’s ability to get the ball on defense. His steal rate ranks 22nd nationally, and he’s the only player taller than 6-foot-7 in the top 50.
Free throw percentage, 64.4: There is no redeeming quality to this number, which ranks only ahead of Rutgers in the Big Ten. No related factor can mitigate the futility. It is simply awful, a ticking time bomb almost destined to doom Wisconsin in a postseason game like it has so many times in the regular season.