IOWA (14-5, 5-3) VS. WISCONSIN (12-8, 5-4)
After a much-deserved five-day break, Iowa basketball returns to action Monday night against the loathsome Wisconsin Badgers. Monday's game is the only time that the Hawkeyes will face Wisconsin during the regular season, the third time in the last four years that Iowa is one-and-done with Madison.
Wisconsin is what they've been in every season for what feels like an eternity: They're snail-like in pace (350th nationally, faster than only Navy, Liberty and Virginia) and highly protective of the ball (31st nationally in turnover rate). Bo Ryan's whole thing -- and Dick Bennett's whole thing before that -- was to wear out an opponent by forcing it to defend long possessions, then forcing and contesting perimeter shots on the other end. Turn the ball over less than the opponent, get better shots, and force tired arms and legs to hoist long jumpers, and boom! Profit.
The great Wisconsin teams would crush you under the weight of their offensive efficiency. During the 2010's, Wisconsin finished with less than ten losses on three occasions. All three of those teams were in the top four nationally in offensive efficiency, mostly due to turnover rate. The Badgers weren't always great shooting teams -- only the 2014-15 team that went to the national championship game was in the national top 20 in effective field goal rate -- but almost every possession would end in a shot, which more than made up for shooting deficiencies.
But while the strategy might look the same under Greg Gard, the results have been markedly worse. Simply put, Wisconsin has gone from a better-than-average shooting team with a phenomenal turnover rate to a average shooting team with a better-than-average turnover rate. The Badgers are shooting at just 50.6 percent effective rate from the field this year, 119th nationally and sixth in the conference. They're sub-34 percent from three, and a pedestrian 50.3 percent inside the arc. Five Badgers are averaging more than three three-point attempts per game, and just one of them (Brevin Pritzl) is shooting better than 35 percent. Meanwhile, that 31st-nationally turnover rate would have been Bo Ryan's worst ranking in his last decade in charge. They're basically doing the same thing, only not as well, and the results back that up.
Those results are the sort that you'd expect from a team playing low-possession high-efficiency basketball with middling efficiency: They're all over the place. Wisconsin has only topped 1.00 points per possession twice this month: A win over Nebraska last week, and a one-point home loss to Illinois on January 8. They're somehow 3-2 in their other five January games, despite averaging 0.93 points per possession in those games. The Badgers have won two road games in Big Ten play, no small feat this year. They've also lost a home game to Illinois. They beat Tennessee by 20 in Knoxville just a few weeks after losing to NC State by 15.
Which brings us to the other side of the equation: Where Wisconsin's defensive scheme has largely been an outgrowth of its offensive philosophy, opponents who have broken them on defense have beaten them this year. In five losses to Power 6 opponents -- we'll ignore early losses to Richmond and New Mexico as November fumbles -- all five opponents averaged more than a point per possession, averaging 1.13 points. That's 0.2 point per possession higher than Wisconsin has given up to its schedule as a whole; in a 62-possession game, Wisconsin's average tempo, that translates to an additional 12 points. When an opponent can score like that, the Badgers really don't have an answer.
Iowa, currently third nationally in offensive efficency, will be the highest-efficiency offense that Wisconsin has faced so far this season. Prior to tonight, Wisconsin lost to Michigan State (10th nationally), St. Mary's (12th nationally), and NC State (22nd nationally), all away from the Kohl Center. The only team in the top 20 that the Badgers have beaten is Marquette (18th nationally), who they got at home.
There have been nights where the Badgers have gotten hot -- 1.21 points per possession against Nebraska; 1.35 against Indiana; 1.12 against Marquette -- but they have all come at home. If Wisconsin can't put together efficiency on that level in Carver Hawkeye Arena, they would have to become the first team to hold Iowa under 1.00 points per possession since Maryland to have a chance. And while this Badger squad has size to throw at Luka Garza, they've been generally beatable on the defensive end by a team that can move the ball and make open shots. Frankly, that has been Iowa's entire reason for existence this season.