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Wisconsin routs Ohio State in Madison

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The Badgers beat the Buckeyes handily at home with an offensive outburst.

In absolutely dominating fashion, the Wisconsin Badgers beat up on the Ohio State Buckeyes 89-66 at the Kohl Center on Thursday night—a night attributed to a Badger great, Ab Nicholas.

There were only about 10 minutes of competitive basketball played between the two teams before the Badgers built a 12-point lead with seven minutes left in the first half. The lead only increased as the night continued, eventually getting out to as much as 30 points.

Coming off a loss in Purdue where Wisconsin was bumped, bruised and bashed in every direction, the Badgers’ decimation of the Buckeyes featured clean play, many more made baskets and a consistently executed gameplan.

Even though he started out 0-of-3 from the field, Bronson Koenig followed up his disappearing act in West Lafayette with a stunning 21-point performance by going 5-of-7 from the three-point line, dropping in two layups on aggressive drives and making both his free throws. One of his three-pointers looked surprisingly familiar.

Nigel Hayes played a forceful game as well by putting up 15 points and four assists on an array of inside moves, drives from the wing, spins and hesitation dribbles to confound the Ohio State defense.

After an underwhelming start to his Big Ten season, Vitto Brown played maybe the best game of his career (this may be a hard claim to make considering the massive lead throughout the game and lack of pressure, but he played really well in the first 25 minutes). Brown’s game was peppered with nuance, aggression and fakes to flounder the defense and wrinkle the offense just enough to put Wisconsin in the best position to score. His first two buckets were from the paint and then he knocked down threes on consecutive possessions to open the second half and put the game out of reach. He was confident.

Brown’s post feeds were textbook, using his long legs to make space on pump fakes and ball fakes, and then snaking his own body around his defender to slip a pass to Ethan Happ or Hayes on the block.

The story of the game was Wisconsin’s offensive execution and efficiency by utilizing an active inside-outside game that was absent on Sunday. It does help to shoot 12-of-22 from three and 49 percent on the night as well.

During the first half, the Badgers kept feeding Happ in the post, who went at Trevor Thompson and Micah Potter with his usual offensive entente, even though it wasn’t his most fruitful night (six points on 3-of-10 shooting and 0-of-4 from the free-throw line). But Happ attacked the boards at a Caleb Swanigan-esque level, grabbing 11 rebounds, including seven of the offensive variety.

The Badgers’ control of the boards was the reason they got out to a commanding lead, getting second-chance opportunities left and right. Ending the game with 21 offensive rebounds (44 total), they matched the Buckeyes’ total defensive rebounding output of 21. That not only speaks to the Badgers’ physicality and commitment to boxing out, but their offensive efficiency; Wisconsin attempted 20 more shots than Ohio State (73-53).

Zak Showalter’s two early fouls opened up an opportunity for the bench to make some key contributions, and Jordan Hill took advantage, knocking down two first-half three-pointers. One of them came when both Hayes and Happ were on the bench; there was nary an attempt to penetrate and the offense was stagnant as the ball was passed around the arc. Koenig dished to Hill at the top of the key, who knocked down his first bucket as the shot clock trickled down to zero.

The Badgers didn’t turn the ball over until about 18 minutes into the game, but they struggled consistently when the Buckeyes would grab a rebound and push the ball up quickly, catching the Wisconsin defense out of position and allowing a quick bucket from JaQuan Lyle or Jae’Sean Tate. Aside from transition defense, the Badgers’ biggest weakness came at the free-throw line, a recurring theme that will no doubt hurt them down the road. They went 5-of-15 from the line—that’s inexcusable.

Thursday night they got lucky, hauling in multiple offensive rebounds on missed free throws that they converted into buckets. That won’t happen against stiffer competition.

Wisconsin went into halftime up 45-27 after its stiff defense forced Ohio State to shoot 36 percent from the field and commit seven turnovers.

Slowly rubbing salt into the Ohio State wounds, the second half saw more of the same dominating form from Wisconsin. A glaring bright point of the second half was the struggling Alex Illikainen. He knocked down two three-pointers to break out of his shooting slump and hopefully give himself some confidence and light a fire. On the subsequent possession following his first three-pointer, ESPN’s broadcast showed a close-up of Illikainen’s face and he was all business. With little emotion on his face. he emitted a true Badger mentality; he knew what he did, but there was a job to get done on the other end. Hopefully we’ll see more out of him.

This also happened in the second half:

I screamed.

Several reserves got playing time in the second half, including Brevin Prtizl (who also had a successful stint in the first half with a steal and great hustle play on a loose ball), Charles Thomas IV, Andy Van Vliet, Aaron Moesch, T.J. Schlundt and Matt Ferris, who was the only one to put up a trillion in the stat sheet.

There was a nagging issue that occurred with the reserves that was also reflected earlier in the game during a stretch when Hayes and Happ weren’t in the game. There was no penetration or pass into the post. Wisconsin’s offense is predicated on working the ball all around, inside and outside. Somebody has to be willing to dish it into the man on the block (which the Badgers obviously do with Happ, but it’s a struggle without him) or else take their man off the dribble to get into the paint and force some openings in the defense.

Without Happ or Hayes, the Badgers were content to dish the ball around the arc and the offense stalled because there was no “good” shot to take. They’ve got to work for it when the simple Happ entry pass isn’t there. A lingering description of the swing offense is that anyone can post up, which both Iverson and Koenig did to receive entry passes, but it’s not as prevalent as it used to be. The guard post-up is a great wrinkle and a necessary one when the true post players are getting a rest, even if it’s just to adjust the defense and open up some outside looks or dish-and-drive opportunities.

Thursday night in Madison, Wisconsin played one of its best games of the season against a middling opponent by forcing the ball inside to start and consequentially lighting it up from deep. Ohio State fell to 0-4 in the Big Ten and the Badgers kept pace with the top of the league by improving to 4-1 in conference play. Their next game is on Tuesday against Michigan in the Kohl Center, when the students will be back and rowdier than ever.

Odds and Ends

  • Happ struggled to put the ball in the net against Thompson and Potter. After playing a great game against Purdue, I thought Happ could score against anyone in college basketball, but Thompson is a taller, longer and more athletic opponent than Happ has seen all season. Thompson was able to move and slide in tandem with Happ’s spins and fakes, and then when Happ would catch Thompson off guard, Thompson was quick and long enough to recover and block or push Happ slightly out of position. It’s possible Happ had an off night, but it’s worth noticing a prototype that could be problematic in the future.
  • The Badgers are obviously a pass-first team, especially when they’re trying to get the ball inside... but they might be too dribble-averse. Can you think of the Badger who attacked his man off the dribble to get to the rim the most? Happ. His improved dribbling (featuring a behind-the-back dribble in transition, by the way) is a deadly weapon when paired with his quick, spinning pivots in the lane. Maybe it’s because his man is giving him so much space inside the arc that he’s unafraid to attack off the dribble, but it’s amazing how often he puts the ball down and goes right at his man. If Happ can do it, Wisconsin’s guards should be able to do it. One of my favorite plays continues to be when Happ dribbles toward the wing, hesitates like he’s gonna hand the ball off to Koenig and then attacks on the baseline.
  • Hayes can be such a matchup nightmare, bullying smaller defenders to the block and then shooting over them or taking bigger defenders off the dribble from the wing for a baseline drive and a dunk or reverse layup. It happened a couple of times Thursday night off of offensive rebounds, but getting Hayes into a mismatch scenario can be deadly. The Badgers should work to get his defender to switch through the pick-and-roll or otherwise to force one of those mismatches.