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No-Three Zone: Wisconsin defense thrives on limiting opponents' three-point attempts

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The key to the Badgers' turnaround this season has come on the defensive side of the ball, where they try to keep opponents off the three-point line.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The more time you spend around Wisconsin Badgers interim head coach, the more you will get used to hearing allusions to the program's "defensive rules."

A curious mind begs to ask: what are those rules, Greg?

Gard, as with anything, answers by staying true to himself. He doesn't give away too much information.

"We have rules that we follow on the perimeter. Some of them ball screens, when the ball is involved," Gard said. "Some involved away from the ball in terms of chasing screens, how we try to divide the floor in half in terms of our chasing concepts, getting over screens, making sure we're putting pressure on the ball."

So maybe it isn't necessary to know the exact rules. What is known, however, is how Wisconsin has come defensively since starting 9-9 and 1-4 in Big Ten play this season.

The Badgers have become what guard Zak Showalter ventured to call a "pretty good" defensive team. It wasn't always that way, though.

Any film review of shooters left wide open in non-conference play, Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh tearing apart Wisconsin's pick-and-roll defense and an unfortunate lack of help-side defense would provide supporting evidence for guard Jordan Hill's simple claim.

"We were defensively bad," Hill said. "I don't even have a polite way to say it. We were really, really bad on defense."

Early in the season, the Badgers were, of course, no Tesla on offense, but they did themselves no favors on the other end of the ball. With only Showalter, guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes as the only players who received significant minutes on the 2015 National Championship runner-up, Wisconsin was putting together the pieces of the puzzle literally as the season was going on. It was bound to take time for a team with the most freshmen in the nation (eight) to begin to gel together.

"I think we all were just so anxious and ambitious to get out there and nobody had really made their mark on the program," Showalter said. "Defense is playing off each other a lot, it's all chemistry and I think we've definitely built that chemistry as the season has gone on."

Much has been made of the Badgers' return to the swing offense sparking their season turnaround under Gard. But solely focusing on Wisconsin's increased efficiency on offense is to undermine their defensive transformation.

"We started really taking pride in our defense," Hill, who wasn't a part of the regular rotation under Gard took over for Bo Ryan, said. "I think we've done a really good job of turning that around and focusing and really caring about stopping other teams.

"Just trying to be a super solid team on defense."

Super solid sounds about right. Entering its regular season finale at Purdue, Wisconsin ranks 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency at 94.0 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom.com. BartTorvik.com's free advanced metric site has the Badgers as the top defensive team in the Big Ten. Torvik lists Wisconsin's mark at 90.8 in conference play--over eight points below its non-conference average.

Relative to the Badgers' average tempo of 63.8 possessions per game, that amount to five fewer points per game against stronger competition.

After watching Western Illinois, holders of a 3-13 record and last place in the Summit League, shoot 54 percent from the field en route to an inexplicable 69-67 upset win over the Badgers, envisioning a scenario in which those numbers would be the case would have been laughable.

Well, the present is laughable.

Sparking Wisconsin's defensive turnaround has been their three-point defense.

In a game where teams are firing away from three-point range with more and more frequency, the Badgers thrive by limiting those attempts.

"That's our philosophy," Gard said. "Try to just shut off the three attempt completely. I think we continue to do a better job at that."

Through 30 games, the Badgers have allowed 472 three-point attempts, while the next-lowest total in the Big Ten is Indiana at 538. 37 percent of opponents' shots have been threes.

"That's huge," Hill said. "I mean, three points is more than two. A lot of teams, not only in this league but in the nation, are starting to shoot a lot more threes."

If limiting opponents' attempts from deep isn't the primary focus of the defense, it surely is among the primary points of emphasis. Evidence? Wisconsin has held each of its Big Ten opponents under their average three-point attempts.

Team:

Purdue

3s/game average

21

3s vs. UW

13

Rutgers 15.7 12
Indiana 24.1 17
Maryland 20.2 11
Northwestern 24.5 12
Michigan State 21 18
Penn State 20.7 15
Indiana (OT) 24.1 17
Illinois 22.7 14
Ohio State 18.9 18
Nebraska 24.5 13
Maryland 20.2 14
Iowa 21.6 18
Michigan 25 13

Minnesota

20.2 17

How have the Badgers achieved that?

There is no simple answer, the team says.

"There's not just one component that goes to it, there's series of things that, if all the pieces are working well, then you can limit attempts," Gard said. "That's been talked about a lot, in terms of our (three-point) field goal percentage defense is higher in the league but the number of attempts and makes against us is at the bottom."

For the guards on the perimeter, it's all about taking the other team's shooters out of their comfort zones.

"You just have to make them as uncomfortable as possible and that's really kind of the focus that we have," Hill said. "The guys who we know can shoot percentage-wise, the guys who we know have historically have shot well percentage-wise, we try to make sure they're uncomfortable when they're at the three-point line.

"Or just don't give them any open looks."

Showalter, who leads the team with 90 fouls this season, has gotten himself in trouble at times by not allowing opponents any space.

"Guys in this league, all they need is from me to you away," Showalter said, referencing another reporter merely inches away. "And that's enough for them. So I can't give them that."