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Wisconsin’s offense returns!

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Hello, old friend.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

See, told you so.

Last week, I said that I was glad that Wisconsin lost to Northwestern. My point was, broadly, that while close wins against middling teams can be good for some things (resilience, learning how to play from behind), sometimes a tough loss can spark a team’s growth more than a streak of uninspiring wins against a streak of uninspiring opponents.

The No. 16 Badgers (22-5 overall, 11-3 Big Ten) then proceeded to drop a winnable road game at Michigan without senior guard Bronson Koenig, who was out of the starting lineup for the first time in 84 games with a calf injury, and things looked kinda bleak.

Things continued to look bleak (bleaker? none-more-bleak?) in the first half against Maryland on Sunday, to the tune of 28 percent shooting from the floor, 16.7 percent from three and a six-point deficit to the Terps.

Oh my, what happened at halftime?

Wisconsin came out firing on all cylinders after the break, ripping off a 9-2 run to take a lead it would never surrender in route to a 71-60 win. The Badgers shot over 50 percent from the floor. Nigel Hayes looked more assertive than he had in weeks, scoring 14 points in the half and grabbing eight rebounds. Freshmen Brevin Pritzl and D’Mitrik Trice (who got the start over the recovering Koenig) played pretty well in extended action.

If the Badgers make a tournament run this year, fans may look back to that halftime against the Terrapins as the turning point.

What did we learn?

1. Wisconsin’s destiny is small ball.

Coach Greg Gard spent the second half Sunday tinkering with lineups. Two yielded interesting results.

One, a three-guard or two-guard and a wing grouping paired with Hayes at the four and Happ at the five seemed to really open things up for Hayes both mid-key and down low where he wrecked havoc on the Terps to the tune of 10 free-throw attempts in the half. The other was an even smaller version that removed Happ and ran Hayes at the five that also yielded positive results.

When the benches shorten come tournament time, expect to see more of these small-ball groupings. They may come at the expense of Vitto Brown, one of the heroes of last year’s tournament, who is shooting 39 percent from the floor this year. Brown only saw eight minutes in the second half against Maryland and sat the last 8:36 of the frame.

Wisconsin’s offense plays much better at pace in the halfcourt (more on that below). If Trice, Khalil Iverson and ‘80s teen movie villain Pritzl continue to develop, surrounding Hayes and Happ with shooters and letting them work their magic down low looks like the way of the future.

Sweep the leg.

2. Pace, pace, pace.

Ryan Mellenthin posted a great column on Wednesday looking ahead at Wisconsin’s tournament prospects. He argued that the Badgers were better served by slowing the pace of the game:

What makes Wisconsin such a good tournament team is its defensive prowess and, at times, methodical offensive pace. When the Badgers slow down the pace of the game, they ensure they take the time to find the best offensive shot and limit opponents’ chances. Doing so has allowed them to currently lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 60.5 points per game.

I disagree!

At least offensively. Wisconsin has three great weapons, all of whom play different games and each of whom look much more comfortable when the pace picks up in the half court.

Hayes drifts in and out of games when he’s 16 feet away and playing face-up to the rim or going iso from deep out on the wing. But when the pace is moving and he’s six feet from the rim, he’s a foul-drawing force of nature.

Ethan Happ is a beast in the block, but a go-slow-and-pound-it-low pace opens him up to double-teams and Mellenthin’s “Hack-a-Happ” (I prefer “The Happ-saw Jim Duggan” or “The [Illicit] Pursuit of Happ-iness” but to each their own). Koenig seems perfectly happy knocking down threes with a hand in his face, and may even thrive on it.

When the offense slows down in the half court, things go badly. Not that the Badgers want to run-and-gun with teams (#hahahanope). At a slow pace the offense looks lost; none of the Badgers’ main weapons are pure scorers or shot creators the way, say, the Terps’ Melo Trimble is. But when Wisconsin moves the ball around quickly in the half court and aggressively attacks the rim, good things happen.

Nigel Hayes, wrecking Damonte Dodd.

3. Three-point shooting may make or break the season.

Not that this is rocket science or anything, but going 2-for-12 from three-point range is bad (in 99 percent of cases, Wisconsin literally made two more three-pointers on Sunday than you did).

No. 1 and No. 2 above will only work over an extended period if the long-range shooting returns to form. As teams start to realize that Happ and Hayes down low is Wisconsin’s moneymaker right now and pack the paint, the shooters will have to steal a game or three before the season is out (Auth. note: if you are an opposing coach, please stop reading two sentences ago). If things run cold, that may be the end of the line.

We know Koenig can steal one on his own.

It was nice to see the Badgers back looking like a top team again. This year’s tournament is wide-open. Wisconsin has shown itself to be a resilient team and as Mellenthin points out, the defense can be stifling. If our good friend offense keeps form, there’s no reason the Badgers couldn’t make a run in March.