MADISON — There would be no Western Illinois sighting at the Kohl Center on Friday night for the Wisconsin Badgers.
The No. 9 Badgers, who dropped last season’s opener in shocking fashion against the Leathernecks at home, had no problems taking care of business against Central Arkansas in a 79-47 rout to open the 2016-17 campaign.
Led by 16 points from guard Bronson Koenig and 14 from Nigel Hayes, a balanced Wisconsin attack spread the wealth and saw 11 players score as the team shot 47 percent from the field.
“Last year, that was always a problem at the beginning of the year: guys didn’t have the on-court experience,” Hayes said. “Last year, we got all of that and now, you can see we have a much more solid, much more ready group of guys to go out and play.”
These Badgers made their point: there is no resemblance to the Wisconsin team from early last season whose best offensive weapon at times was isolation and struggled with defensive fundamentals. In what was still far from a perfect effort, Wisconsin averaged 1.234 points per possession and limited the Bears to 28.3 percent shooting (15-for-52).
“All in all, proud of how hard they played, and how they played together,” Badgers head coach Greg Gard said. “They’re a really unique group of guys, and it’s fun to watch them grow.”
Forward Ethan Happ was efficient from the field despite limited paint touches, scoring eight points on 4-for-4 shooting while adding nine rebounds and four assists. Guard Zak Showalter was the third Badger to finish the night in double digits, scoring 10 points.
A stifling defensive effort was the Badgers’ hallmark on Friday night. The Bears, picked to finish 11th in the Southland Conference this season, were no match and averaged just .746 points per possession while finishing with more turnovers than assists. Central Arkansas made just nine of 37 two-point attempts for a paltry 24.3 shooting percentage.
“You watch Wisconsin on film, you watch them on television, kind of from afar as a basketball fan, and you know about their defense and how good that their reputation is,” Central Arkansas head coach Russ Pennell said. “And when you see it up close and personal, you see how good it is. They just don’t give you anything easy.
“We just couldn’t find anything tonight, any rhythm. And I credit Wisconsin with that. Their size and physicality really took over in the second half and we weren’t able to stand up next to that.”
Bringing back its entire primary nine-man unit from last season, Wisconsin utilized 10 players regularly and ended up playing 15 in Friday night’s blowout.
“I know the optimism is that you’ve got a deep team and there’s some people that can come in and give quality minutes,” Pennell said. “And you saw that tonight. And that’s really what makes a championship-level team.”
Are the Badgers championship-level team? Time will tell. Championship aspirations? Certainly.
Alex Illikainen and Jordan Hill were the first two off the bench, as head coach Greg Gard also received contributions from guard Khalil Iverson, forward Charlie Thomas and guard D’Mitrik Trice.
“You could tell it was our first game tonight, obviously when we had some different lineups on the floor,” Gard said. “Trying to use and develop a bench, that will hopefully be a strength of ours. I think it is already…I think we got better as the game went on.”
Facing Central Arkansas’ match up zone, Wisconsin was three-point reliant throughout much of the night, attempting 29 triples and making 11 (37.9 percent), compared to its 24 two-point attempts.
“The way they were guarding it, once you touched the ball on the opposite post, they were sending help, which left the opposite wing open,” Hayes said. “It turned into a ‘last guy open takes the shot’ type of deal when they were in scramble mode.
“They were open threes. We’ll take them. Not necessarily that we want to take all threes, but it works for the Warriors.”
Led by Thomas’ eight attempts and seven makes, the Badgers went to the free throw line 19 times in the second half, going 18-for-23 for the game.
Hayes scored four first half points on 2-for-6, but came alive after the intermission. The senior forward buried a pair of threes and scored eight points while assisting on a Hill triple as the Badgers opened the second half on an 14-3 run to lead 48-25 with 14:19 to play.
From there, the Badgers coasted into the rest of the weekend with a 1-0 record, as Koenig buried three consecutive triples after a 1-for-7 start from three-point range to effectively put the game out of reach.
There was no sluggish start on this night despite a late-arriving crowd due to Madison traffic with Homecoming festivities going on. Wisconsin jumped out to a 13-3 lead, though the Bears took advantage of a Badgers drought from deep to pull within 19-17.
Spurred on by threes on consecutive possessions by the freshman Trice, who finished with eight points, the Badgers used an 11-0 run to jump out to a 30-17 advantage.
“That first turnover, I was kind of down on myself, and then [Central Arkansas] came down and get a foul and hit a couple free throws,” Trice said. “I was kind of down on myself at that point, but I knew that I had to keep playing and I knew my teammates had my back. Knocking down those shots really helped my confidence.”
Shooting 10-for-13 on two-pointers but 4-for-14 from three-point range, Wisconsin led 34-22 at the half.
Some first half musings:— Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q) November 12, 2016
6:5 assist-to-turnover ratio
Forced 8 TOs
Just 4 FTA, 4-14 from deep
UW went 10 men deep
Iverson had three blocks
Derreck Brooks led the Bears with 12 points and Jordan Howard added 10 on 2-for-11 shooting.
The next task for Wisconsin gets a bit more challenging: a road trip to face No. 22 Creighton on Tuesday. But for the night, at least, the Badgers are content to avoid, in convincing fashion, a repeat of last season’s opening-night fiasco.