Today we are joined by Jake Kocorowski from SB Nation’s Bucky’s 5th Quarter. He was kind enough to answer my questions about the Badgers before tomorrow’s game. You can follow him on Twitter @JakeKocoB5Q and B5Q at @B5Q.
Brandon Birkhead: After starting his first two seasons with sweet 16 appearances, Greg Gard had a below .500 season in his third year with the Badgers. They stand at 12-6 (4-3) currently and they should make the NCAA Tournament. That being said, it seems like a step back from the guaranteed top 4 finish in conference every year under Bo Ryan. How do Wisconsin fans judge Gard so far?
Jake Kocorowksi: I think fans like Gard for the most part. He took over for Ryan after the latter abruptly retired during the 2015-16 season and led them to Sweet 16 berths that year and the next, and both of those contests Wisconsin was extremely close to getting to the Elite 8. Last year I believe will prove to be an aberration from the norm for the programs, as injuries to the backcourt and losing four key starters from the season prior showed it was really a transitional year.
This season, there was uneasiness brewing when Wisconsin dropped four of five before beating then-No. 2 Michigan on Saturday, but I think fans also need to realize that a lot of Ryan’s and Gard’s teams were led by experienced seniors. Right now, UW has redshirt senior Ethan Happ, the likely All-American and All-Big Ten candidate leading the way. Khalil Iverson and Charles Thomas contribute here and there but not at a frequency you’d necessarily want from upperclassmen. Wisconsin is receiving a lot of contributions from sophomores Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers, along with redshirt sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice.
Wisconsin will be fine, and even without Happ next year, the program is set up for success.
BB: The Badgers have lost 4 of 6, but did beat the previously undefeated Michigan Wolverines in the last game. What gives?
JK: A lot went down in that six-game stretch. Against Minnesota and Maryland, they scored 14 and 15 points, respectively, in the first half--deficits that the team almost overcame, especially against the Terps when they actually briefly led with under two minutes left in the game after a Davison three.
Turnovers at inopportune times as well hurt the Badgers. Against Purdue, they committed 17 turnovers in a home overtime loss, and even against the Gophers, they pulled within two late and had all the momentum rolling until they committed three turnovers on three consecutive possessions.
Also free throws. For amazing as Happ is, and in my opinion may be a player Badgers fans are taking for granted, he is only shooting 49.3 percent from the line. The team itself is hitting just about two-thirds of those opportunities. They faltered against the Boilermakers in that category as well.
Against Michigan, they were efficient defensively, scored more than 15 points in the first half, and really saw an amazing performance by Happ against what was the third best defense in the nation according to KenPom. Wisconsin really needed that upset.
BB: Illinois hasn’t beaten Wisconsin in 13 games and some of the best Badgers players of late (Ethan Happ and Frank Kaminsky) are Illinois natives. Why do you hate us? What did we do to you?
JK: LOL. Ryan, Gard and their respective assistants just know how to recruit. I mean to be fair, both were sort of projects or needed time to develop coming from high school. Happ redshirted his first year but became a significant contributor earlier than Kaminsky, but if I’m not mistaken, he also was point guard size before having a growth spurt. Kaminsky never redshirted but did not significantly impact the team until his junior season.
Either way, credit the Wisconsin staff to finding guys who fit the mold of the program, allowing them to develop, and going out of state to do so.
BB: From what pit of hell did you guys pull the flopping Brad Davison from? Why must Wisconsin be both A.) Good and B.) Irritating.
Davison has the Aaron Craft quality of being the guy every opposing teams’ fanbase hates. There’s the hustle, the clutch shots at times, and then the charges. Honestly, he has not received many charges since his performance against N.C. State where he drew four of them. Call them what you will, but he does play mostly sound defense. I would actually argue that it feels like Reuvers has been getting more charge calls lately than Davison has.
There’s also a leadership quality to Davison that will really prove useful next season when Happ exhausts his eligibility.
BB: Besides Ethan Happ, who are the main threats for the Badgers this season?
JK: Think we mentioned most of them earlier. Trice has cooled off from three-point range but is still shooting 44.3 percent from deep, and if he gets going, he could really make life measurable for opposing teams. Davison averages over 10 points per game and is starting to emerge more as a scoring threat and having the ability to make shots close to the end of the shot clock.
The one guy I really am high on is the second-year forward in Reuvers. He still needs to up his rebounding game on the glass (less than three boards per contest) but he is still a really good defensive player. He leads the team in blocks (1.7) and has really stepped up as a rim protector lately. Offensively when all is said and done when he leaves the program, he could be among one of the better players we’ve seen come through Madison. He has an inside-outside game that Happ doesn’t, and is starting to hover around double-digits scoring each contest recently.
Another emerging player I’ll also throw out is redshirt freshman guard Kobe King. He played 31 minutes against Michigan on Saturday. He is a three-level scorer that seems to finally be getting his footing underneath him after a patella injury last season, and with that, getting more playing time.
BB: The Badgers will finish with _____ wins and a _____ tournament berth.
The Badgers will finish with 21 wins and an NCAA No. 4-5 seed tournament berth. I think the team will use the Michigan win to springboard itself into more consistent play out of the funk it just had.
BB: How do you see this game playing out?
I think Wisconsin pulls off the road win. Ohio State transfer Micah Potter told me yesterday that Illinois has a style he referred to as “organized chaos,” and UW will need to not commit turnovers as seen against Purdue or late against Minnesota to be efficient and not be upset.
If they can contain turnovers and not put themselves in a hole in the first half, they will likely be in good shape. I’ll say 70-64 with Illinois playing tough on its home court.