IOWA HAWKEYES vs.
|TIME||6:00 pm CT|
|WHERE||Kohl Center, Madison|
TALE OF THE TAPE
|127.7 (1st)||OFF. EFF.||112.7 (32nd)|
|98.8 (108th)||DEF. EFF.||89.4 (9th)|
|55.4 (20th)||eFG%||50.2 (170th)|
And so comes what is arguably the most important six-game stretch of the Fran McCaffery Era, starting Thursday night in that godforsaken Kohl Center against the detestable Wisconsin Badgers. Kevin Kugler and Andy Katz are on the call for ESPN at 6 p.m. CT.
After some early-season success against also-rans like Nebraska and Michigan State, Wisconsin has fallen into a win-one, lose-one pattern. The Badgers have neither won nor lost consecutive games since January 20, and they really haven't answered the bell against any of the Big Ten's best this year. Their best win in conference play is probably a double-overtime win over Indiana; their best win of the season, at least according to Kenpom, was on December 15 against Loyola Chicago. Ohio State beat them at the Kohl Center by 12 in late January. Illinois topped them by 15 two weeks ago. In their most recent game, the Badgers lost by 8 at home to Michigan, a follow-up on a 23-point defeat at Crisler last month. Iowa shares the same trait, and Thursday night's game will go a long way toward determining where each team falls in the Big Ten pecking order.
On paper, Wisconsin is doing Wisconsin Stuff and, in traditional Wisconsin fashion, forcing everyone else to do the same. The Badgers are their traditional 321st nationally in tempo. They're fourth nationally in turnovers committed, and 259th in turnovers caused. They're 41st in defensive rebounding and 293rd in offensive boards. Sconnie is 71st in free throw attempt rate allowed and 250th in free throw attempt rate themselves. Essentially, Wisconsin will slow you down, protect the ball, get back on defense and not give you cheap ones at the line, and everyone else playing them does the exact same thing.
Where it's broken down for the Badgers is in simple shooting: Wisconsin's 48% effective field goal rate in Big Ten games ranks tenth in the conference. They are tenth in the conference in two-point field goal rate (47.7%) and ninth in three-point shooting (32.4%). When you don't shoot the ball well, you don't get to the free throw line, and you essentially concede the offensive glass, it makes for a lot of empty possessions, which bears out in the Badgers' modest 100.2 efficiency rating in conference games (by way of example, Iowa leads the Big Ten at 117.6).
Wisconsin has gotten by with defense: The Badgers are third in the league in defensive efficiency, second in free throw rate allowed, and fourth in defensive rebounding rate and effective field goal rate allowed. Aside from a general lack of blocked shots, they're simply good across the board on defense, and their usual brand of grinding teams into a fine powder over the course of 40 slow, grueling minutes remains largely intact.
The Badgers are certainly a familiar cast of ne'er-do-wells, with six seniors in the eight-man rotation. The backcourt is essentially a three-senior split, with D'Mitrik Trice (6'0", 185, 13.6 ppg, 3.7 apg) at the point and Ol' Crotch Shot Brad Davison (6'4", 200, 8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 0.8 nppg [nut punches per game]) playing the two; fellow senior Trevor Anderson (6'3", 195, 3.5 ppg) is the rotational piece at both guard positions. Trice leads Wisconsin in scoring and the Big Ten in minutes, but (a) his efficiency is waning in late February for the third consecutive year, and (b) Wisconsin tends to lose when he scores a bunch of points. In the eight games this season when Trice scored more than 15, the Badgers are just 3-5. Buzzcut has struggled to score against major-conference opponents this year, topping 11 points just three times in 17 games against Big Six teams. Both Trice and Davison shoot 36% from three and aren't afraid to put it up, with more than nine three-point attempts per game split between them.
Much like the backcourt, the two forward positions are in a three-man rotation. Senior Aleem Ford (6'8", 220, 9.3 ppg/4.1 rpg) is back again. He also takes a bunch of threes at a 34% clip, but his 52% inside the arc is behind only Micah Potter and the aforementioned Anderson among Wisconsin contributors. Sophomore Tyler Wahl (6'9", 220, 5.5/4.3) has started the last nine games for the Badgers, allowing Greg Gard to build a two-man rotation at center. Freshman Jonathan Davis (6'5", 195, 7.1/4.3) brings some guard skills to the three spot and allows Ford to spell Wahl when Wisconsin can afford to give up some size. At center, the Badgers are splitting time between seniors Micah Potter (6'10", 250, 11.6/5.9) and Nate Reuvers (6'11", 235, 9.2/3.5/1.1 bpg). One is Wisconsin's most effective offensive player. The other is named after river pirates. The river pirate one has been starting recently, for whatever reason. Nobody ever said Wisconsin was smart.
These games are wars. They've been wars going back to the proxy battles over transfer policy between Fran vs. Bo a decade ago. More than once this year, Iowa has buckled in games like this, especially when the refereeing doesn't go the Hawkeyes' way (which it most certainly won't Thursday). This might not be the Wisconsin that most expected going into the season, nor the home crowd that usually causes opposing teams trouble, but it's still Wisconsin at Kohl on a cold February night. It's gonna get brutal. If Iowa is going to get anything more than a middling conference finish and NCAA seed out of this season, it needs to start converting these opportunities right now.