Just because football season is over, doesn't mean we can't have a good ole roundtable talking about another Wisconsin sport.
The men's basketball team is off to its best start in school history, and to discuss the season so far, we welcome in the following writers:
- Phil Mitten (@hoopsmarinara)
- Drew Hamm (@drewhamm5)
- Bart Torvik (@totally_t_bomb)
- Luke Mueller (@luke_mueller24)
Wisconsin is 22-2 with seven games remaining in the regular season, after a less-than-comfortable (at times) 65-55 victory against the Nebraska Cornhuskers Tuesday. Who has played (or what has gone) well, and what still needs improvement from this team?
Phil: Obviously, Frank Kaminsky has been the focal point of the offense, but also opposing defenses. That has given him the opportunity to impact the game in so many ways, and Kaminsky has risen to the occasion remarkably well time after time. Sam Dekker is coming around lately, too, coinciding with Bronson Koenig's emergence.
But what has to improve is the defense -- in particular the perimeter defense. The Big Ten schedule is backloaded with better teams that are much more balanced than what Wisconsin has burned through so far and I'm skeptical that this all-time great offense can get through without a hiccup.
Drew: It is hard to single out one player that has "played well" enough to separate themselves from the pack. Frank Kaminsky has been outstanding, Nigel Hayes has been excellent, Koenig has been admirable, Dekker has been improving (rapidly, I might add) and Josh Gasser has been consistent. I guess my answer to who has played well is, the starting five.
With Traevon Jackson out for at least a few more weeks, the bench still worries me. There is no scoring punch there and eventually (due to foul trouble, injury, poor play) the Badgers will need someone to step up off the bench and provide some offense. Right now there is...nobody. Duje Dukan, in particular, needs to snap out of his funk. Since the Rutgers game (eight games) he is averaging 15.5 minutes per game and 3.8 points per game -- including half of the games below that average.
Bart: Things have gone very well when the Badgers have the ball, obviously. The offense has been great, showing all the hallmarks of a great Bo Ryan offense: getting to the line, not turning it over, and getting open shots. Add in a bunch of guys making those open shots, and a National Player of the Year who can create and make tough shots, and they can be just unstoppable. After goosing their numbers against Nebraska with a bunch of late free throws, the Badgers remain on pace to score more points-per-possession than any Big Ten team in the KenPom era.
Things have gone less well when the Badgers don't have the ball, and the defense still needs to improve. I continue to maintain that they've gotten a bit unlucky -- coming into the Nebraska game, Big Ten teams were hitting almost 40 percent of their threes against UW. I expect that to regress to the mean, but still: they've got limitations on defense that can be exposed.
Luke: I think the play of Kaminsky cannot go unnoticed. The way he has developed his game from last year to this year is a huge improvement. He has some of the best post moves I have seen from a college player in many years. When I watch him play live, I constantly see him convert a basket down low and just say wow. He is the hub of the team. When the team plays great defense, its usually because Kaminsky has made the paint an area no team can enter. When the team is scoring off the pass, its typically because Kaminsky is distributing the ball well after getting double teamed. He does so many unnoticed, little things right that he has become invaluable to the team. How often does a guy lead the team in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks?! He's indispensable. End of story.
For this team to get better, the bench needs to produce better as a whole. Dukan has become almost a non-factor in conference play. After a few good showings in non-conference play, Vitto Brown has not improved at the rate the team would have hoped. Zak Showalter, in my eyes, has been a bright spot off the bench. He has played defense exceptionally well, but again is not a scoring threat. When Jackson comes back, sure the bench will get better, but with more playing time and opportunities, it seems many would have expected a better contribution from the group than what has been present.
Bronson Koenig has scored in double digits in seven of eight games since starting in place of Traevon Jackson, but also has dished out 14 assists only given up six turnovers in that time frame. Assess the play of the sophomore point guard in a starting role.
Phil: Koenig is growing in confidence every game and we're finally seeing his full arsenal offensively. He's still lagging behind with some of the team defensive concepts, but that will come because he's a smart guy. The sophomore is even showing signs that he can pick his spots to penetrate more often, something I was nervous about losing when Jackson went down. I'm okay slapping a moniker like "The Future" on Koenig because he absolutely is ... and it's bright. Now, if he could just scoot back a few inches on those long twos...
Drew: In my expert opinion, he has played well. Like, really well. He is primed for a huge season next year.
Bart: Stud. Assassin. Magician. I like this guy.
Luke: He has made it really hard for Jackson to see the floor as much as he did when he comes back healthy. In two years, we may look back at the injury as the event that really helped Koenig develop into an elite guard. He has shown the ability to run the team offensively while taking care of the ball and proven he is a scorer. The team looks more fluid (which is difficult given how good they already looked) with him at the point and Jackson injured than with him coming off the bench. In no way am I on the "I hate Traevon" bandwagon, but I don't know that I want Koenig to leave the starting lineup ever again. What I am trying to say is he is the real deal. AS A SOPHOMORE! If Jackson can contribute in a meaningful way when he comes back from injury, this team could be lethal.
Where is Wisconsin missing Traevon Jackson right now?
Phil: Jackson is still a better finisher at the rim. He's stronger than Koenig and being a lefty equals crafty. Plus, as I'm sure everyone else will mention, the depth is hurting right now at guard with him out of commission.
Drew: In wild, contested forays into the lane? I keed, I keed. Gumming up the works in regards to the rotation is clearly where they miss him the most. Depending on when Jackson can return to the lineup, the Badgers may also miss the mystical leadership qualities that all senior point guards bring to a team. Three of the Badgers' last four games are on the road (Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio State and a home game against MSU thrown in there) in what is undoubtedly their toughest stretch of the year. Koenig has steered the ship through some minor squalls on the road, but playing in those barns will be akin to sailing through a typhoon.
Bart: When Showalter is on the floor, for one. Showy has played admirably in his expanded role, but he's nowhere near the player that Koenig or Jackson is at this point. I also suspect that the Badgers miss Jackson in ways that are hard to perceive. It's been noted that their defense has struggled since Jackson went down, even though Bronson seems to be an adequate or better one-on-one defender. The Badgers rely on help defense, and having a sophomore out there probably mucks things up in ways that are beyond my understanding.
Luke: This team really misses his ability to drive and create. While Koenig has done a great job of scoring and being more of a threat to shoot a jump shot than Jackson, one thing Bronson seems uncomfortable doing is driving to the hoop especially with the shot clock winding down. When Jackson does that, he finds open players around the perimeter or in the paint because defenses collapse down on him. One thing both of these guys have is vision, but where Koenig has great vision on the fast break Jackson does it in traffic.
What (or who's) the biggest reason for Wisconsin winning seven straight since Rutgers?
Phil: No reason to overthink this -- it's Kaminsky. I mean he's had 22 assists in that period, while averaging 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in under 58 possessions per game. He totally solved the "Case of the Concussion-like Symptoms."
Drew: Koenig. The team hasn't missed a beat without it's starting senior point guard and Koenig's play is a huge reason for that.
Bart: Kaminsky, Kaminsky, Kaminsky. The guy is amazing. More generally, it is just so hard to stop the Badgers from scoring. You have to hope that each of Dekker, Hayes, and Kaminsky is off his game; and now you've got Koenig hot from the outside and breaking ankles on the way to the rim.
Luke: I'll go a different route and say Dekker. Dekker has scored in double figures the during the last seven games. The only other guy to do that is Kaminsky. Dekker has come into his own, becoming more assertive and looking to be more of a scorer, which was a criticism during non-conference when he was injured. Because of Kaminsky's hype, Dekker has been lost in the shuffle of the spotlight, but he has been doing it all. He is also averaging just under seven rebounds per game during that stretch as well. He has become more critical to the success of the team during this time than ever before.
Coming up in the next couple of weeks -- at home versus Illinois, at Penn State, at home versus Minnesota, then a match-up on the road against Maryland. Which game provides the the biggest trouble for the Badgers?
Phil: At Maryland. First trip to College Park as conference foes, Wisconsin is going in with a huge Top 5 target on its back. The Terps' only loss at home came to Virginia, and they seem to have a lot of necessary pieces. For one, the best guard duo Wisconsin has faced since Duke. Melo Trimble is one of those quick perimeter guys that can get into the defense and create, while Dez Wells scares me with his D.J. Newbill-ish potential without Jackson there to body him up. Maryland also has good (not great) size, but a big body inside to challenge Kaminsky and their own version of Dekker in Jake Layman.
Drew: Any road B1G game is tough (yes, even you sometimes Penn State), but Minnesota is a game that always scares me, regardless of locale. The Gophers force a buttload (official KenPom metric, haterzzzz) of turnovers and have very active hands on defense (fourth in the nation in turnover percentage, second in steal percentage). Koenig and Showalter need to have their ball-handling game on point (nailed it) when Minnesota comes to town or Nate Mason (a player I've never seen play but already despise) will pick your pocket.
Bart: The easy answer is Maryland, although their season is trending dramatically down and teetering on the brink. The sneaky answer is at Penn State. In terms of adjusted efficiency in conference play, they've been about as good as Maryland. That said, the Bryce-Jordan Center usually makes a morgue seem lively, so the Badgers should be able to prevail. I'm taking a crazy mid-week trip to D.C. to watch that Maryland game, and I'm hoping to see the Badgers clinch the conference title.
Luke: Agree completely with Drew that any road game is difficult in the Big Ten (i.e. Rutgers...), but I would say the game against Illinois. A Primetime game against a top five team on the road on network television. Needless to say Illinois will give Wisconsin their best shot. Whether it is the fact that it is on network TV (which I would argue has a bigger fell to it than a primetime game on ESPN) or not, there is always something about these early afternoon games on network television that guarantees it will be a close game for the Badgers. While Illinois might not be a great team, the team can be potent -- just ask Baylor, Maryland or Michigan State. The team is on a four-game win streak and may be one of the hottest teams, other than Wisconsin, in the Big Ten. For all of those reasons, I think the Badgers need to be on their "A" game when the Illini come to town.