If it wasn’t immediately obvious that Tuesday night’s game between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights was both teams’ Big Ten opener, it probably became so when the score was 33-18 at halftime. Most pundits would deem this a horrible and caveman brand of basketball that goes against all the changes the NCAA has made to speed the game up and increase scoring.
It can be frustrating, yes, and it can look like a rock fight at times. All of that doesn’t matter, though. Big Ten Basketball is back. Hard-nosed, beat ‘em up, back ‘em down Big Ten Basketball. Wisconsin, ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency at 91.7 points per 100 possessions, versus Rutgers, ranked 84th at 98.6 (via kenpom.com), ended how we all expected: with the Badgers controlling the game all night other than a mid-second half run from a scrappy Rutgers team projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten—a position that feels like home for Jim Delaney’s most depressing money-hungry addition to the conference. The Badgers emerged victorious 72-52, covering the -18 betting line in Wisconsin’s favor as well.
While Wisconsin’s offense worked hard to find vulnerabilities in the Scarlet Knights’ defense, the Badgers’ defense played fundamentally sound, pack-line defense against a Rutgers team with a 102.8 adjusted offensive efficiency (ranked 163rd in Division I). Holding only two Rutgers players to double-digits, the Badgers used active help defense to force turnovers and combat mismatches and back-side help defenders to protect the basket. Independently, Nigel Hayes locked down Mike Williams late in the second half to quell the Rutgers run that was riddled with breakdowns and cut the Badgers’ lead down to nine.
The Badgers opened the game with their own bad turnovers on offense, but defensively they came out active and energized. In just the first couple of minutes, help defenders slid over, engaged a Rutgers player and registered a strip that led to transition buckets.
Here, Vitto Brown hedges out on the screen to help Zak Showalter. Rutgers makes a great pass down to the short corner while Brown hustles to recover onto his man and gets caught on the pump fake—a problem that’s ailed him and a couple other Badgers through this season so far—opening up space for Deshawn Freeman to go to the bucket. Collapsing toward Freeman, Hayes recovers from the back side, arms outstretched, protecting the rim while Showalter returns Brown’s favor and registers a patented Showalter swipe-steal that leads to a sweet transition play between him and the hustling Ethan Happ.
Help defense is a foundation of Wisconsin’s defensive formula; sag off your man if he’s on the weak side to cover the basket or to fill a passing lane. Hayes and Happ both have two feet in the lane as Rutgers goes into its pick-and-roll action and various Scarlet Knights linger out on the three-point line. A four-pack of Badgers collapse in on Freeman, giving him no chance.
Rutgers has four men under the free-throw line here, spreading out Wisconsin’s defense as the Scarlet Knights try to attack Brown off the dribble in the post, exploiting his smaller size. Guarding Issa Thiam out on the arc (50 of his 60 field-goal attempts have been threes this season) Hayes watches Brown hold his ground and he drops in help with a swipe of his own. A gold star to Brown for pushing his man back inside where Hayes can snag the ball against the unsuspecting man, but also notice Showalter’s and Happ’s heads—they never stopped moving. Vigilance is the key to the Badgers’ defense and it’s why they’re known for being so efficient.
Happ gets switched onto a smaller man out on the arc (definitely not his defensive forte) but he fills the driving lane to slow the Rutgers driver and almost rips the ball away. Players can get a little over eager—Happ especially—so it’s important to pick your spots carefully because a failed steal leaves your team at a serious disadvantage. Steals are a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
Happ’s 4.0 steal percentage leads the team (via barttorvik.com), but Showalter is close behind at 3.6 percent. He’s scrappy, tough, lightning-quick and has a nose for the ball. I call Showalter “Rat” because it just seems like he’s always sniffin’ around out on the court. Watch this play:
Showalter’s court awareness is incredible on the defensive end. He knows exactly where his man is with his peripherals, but he slowly sinks down toward Hayes and Freeman. Focused mainly on Freeman, Showalter’s head and eyes are pointed in his direction; he’s itching to snag that ball. He lunges for the ball, acutely aware that his man is trying to take advantage of the space, but Showalter is a half-second ahead and backhands the pass right out of mid-air. The steal is probably partly luck, but Showalter is alert and prepared to pounce. His role is much bigger and more important than his 14.0 usage percentage shows, and his defense is sharp and sound.
Khalil Iverson’s athleticism and skill set leave him poised to succeed Showalter as the defensive stalwart, silent-heart and explosive highlight-reel player. Clearly, Iverson is still developing his offensive game, but his defense is something to watch between his ability to shut down an athletic wing or help and recover from across the court.
Navigating the pick and roll is one of the most difficult defensive concepts to grasp and communicate on the court. On this play, Iverson prepares for a standard screen where he’ll hedge out or help on D'Mitrik Trice’s man on the dribble hand-off, but instead Iverson’s man aborts the screen and runs around, catching Iverson off-guard. Trice doesn’t see it either and simply offers a little hand check as he runs by; you can see Trice’s eyes are frozen on his own man, leaving Iverson on his own. Utilizing his freak athleticism, Iverson pursues and blocks him with a fullly out-stretched arm to recover. Defensive lapses can be patched with hard work, speed, size, positioning or by being a perfect specimen like Iverson. Oh yeah, he did it again later in the game too:
In his sophomore season, Iverson’s knowledge of Wisconsin’s defensive scheme is growing and he’s marrying awareness with quickness to help from 10 feet away. Also notice Alex Illikainen looking away from Showalter’s man when he drives, offering up a free lane with no resistance.
Rutgers’s rebounding ability was on display Tuesday night with that ball banging off the backboard left and right amid a medieval gauntlet of Badgers and Scarlet Knights leaping and clutching for it. Offensive rebounding is notorious for getting defenses out of position, creating exploitable mismatches. Smart players and help defense are paramount when battling mismatches.
Following an offensive rebound, the 6’0 Trice is stuck guarding the Rutgers center. Iverson’s help defense is the key to this possession that leads to a Rutgers turnover. Watching over Trice like a big brother, Iverson snuggles up close right away for a double-team and then hurries back when his man passes to Freeman at the free-throw line to prevent the post pass. Additionally, Happ goes from deterring the Rutgers guard’s drive to patrolling the middle of the paint to getting in Freeman’s grill. Masterfully, the two sophomores pass off help defensive duties.
Room for Improvement
A glaring flaw Tuesday night was how much space Wisconsin’s big men were giving the Rutgers guards on the pick and roll. It’s possible it was part of the scouting report or just how the Badgers guard the pick and roll, but both Happ and Brown gave up space like the Morrill Land-Grant Act on defense.
Both players back up to the free-throw line and Happ doesn’t even throw his long arms in the air to offer some semblance of resistance. Happ did the exact same thing in the second half and Johnson nailed a three to spark the Rutgers run; he slid with him on a screen and hung five feet back on the wing with his arms at his side.
These could be outliers, but against better three-point shooting teams, that type of defense won’t fly because the opponent will be happy to let it.
Hayes Hounds on Defense
Hayes’s defense was especially great in the second half after the under-eight minute timeout. Rutgers had just gone on a run when he switched onto Williams, who was lighting Wisconsin up from deep. Three possessions in the final six minutes ended the run from Rutgers and extended Wisconsin’s lead, putting any hope of an upset cleanly out of reach.
First, watch Hayes sticking to Williams on the inbounds play, scrambling through multiple screens and sticking in front of him to deter any drive, but also not giving him a lick of space to get his shot off from the wing.
With Williams and his teammate sulking in the opposite corner Showalter slides to help defend the basket on the far block and impede Koenig’s man from the hoop. Koenig leads his man right into Showalter like a cow through a gate using the baseline as an extra defender. Dropping one man over himself, Hayes falls into perfect positioning to guard the entire weak side and pick off the errant Rutgers pass.
Hayes did the same thing against Syracuse’s Andrew White earlier this year, shutting him down in the second half to call it quits on the Orange’s comeback. As the clock ticked down and Rutgers made its last ditch-effort Tuesday night, Hayes kept up the intensity and unreciprocated friendship with Williams to put Wisconsin’s victory in the bag.
Pack-line defense is what makes Virginia a perennial contender under Tony Bennett and it should do the same for the Badgers if they play as well as they did against the Scarlet Knights. Obviously Rutgers is the scratching post of the Big Ten, but solid team defense coupled with relentless individual efforts from players like Showalter and Iverson throughout the game will give the Badgers a chance in every game.
Quick shoutout to this offensive possession that reminded me of the San Antonio Spurs and probably won’t be the last time we see it this year.