Whew boy, things are rough on the hardwood right now.
After Sunday’s ugly loss to Michigan State, Wisconsin has now lost four of five. Truth be told, even with some wins sprinkled in, the Badgers have looked out of sorts ever since their trip to New York in late January.
Some of Wisconsin’s ailments are going to be tough to fix at this point in the season. All players can do is keep putting in work on free throws and three-pointers. Keep practicing—they’ll either go in or they won’t.
But there are some things that Wisconsin can do tactically that may make a difference. There’s still time to right the ship, but the clock’s ticking with just two regular-season games left before the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin can no longer play Hayes, Happ and Brown together
There is a large-enough sample size—regardless of how he’s been played in the past, Nigel Hayes isn’t a three. He’s a four (or a super-small-ball five). So is Vitto Brown.
Hayes’s two-year “Exhibit A in why you don’t dramatically change your shooting stroke midway through your college career” shooting slump has seen the formerly 50 percent shooter and possible NBA lottery pick shoot his way out of the first round and maybe even the draft. While still a monster in the paint (he destroyed Maryland a few games back in the key inside eight feet), the shot and iso game needed from a wing three is just not there.
For as bad as Hayes’s slide has been, Brown’s has been worse (at least Hayes’s field-goal percentage is actually UP from 2015-16). Brown has gone from a 44.5 percent shooter last year to a 39.4 percent shooter from the floor. His three-point percentage has dropped from 40 percent to 30 percent.
With neither Hayes nor Brown able to play the three on offense and center Ethan Happ still learning a mid-range game, it’s clear that playing the three together has become untenable. Running out two guards, two redundant fours and a five who needs to be in the paint is killing the offensive flow.
During the Maryland game and in the Badgers’ 9-0 run to end the first half against Michigan State, a Hayes/Happ two-big lineup was devastating. Brown should be the first big off the bench going forward, spelling Happ or Hayes. With the bench desperately in need of shortening (more on that below) moving to a three-guard lineup also plays to the strengths of Wisconsin’s limited quality depth.
It’s time to shorten the bench
Midway through the first half against Michigan State, 10 Badgers had seen minutes. Brevin Pritzl and Charles Thomas IV both picked up two relatively early fouls, and Thomas never saw the floor again, but seven Badgers saw more than 13 minutes and Pritzl probably would have gotten there had had he not gotten the early fouls.
Eight Badgers are averaging more than 10 minutes per game. Alex Illikainen (9.6), Pritzl (7.8) and Thomas (6.5) have also seen a fair bit of action.
Depth is great if it is bring value, but the large number of players getting run is a function of under-performance more than anything. If anything, the constant rotation tinkering has Wisconsin looking lost and confused on defense, to the tune of giving up more than 80 points in the past two games for the first time in about a jillion seasons.
It’s time to shorten the bench. Moving Brown into a super-sub role and playing Hayes at the five for brief spurts allows the minutes that have been going to Thomas and Illikainen to go to the guard rotation.
The remaining minutes should be split between Koenig, Showalter, Trice, Pritzl and Khalil Iverson, depending on defensive matchups and hot hands. That gives a consistent rotation of eight, with Jordan Hill and the two remaining bigs available for spot duty when needed.
This is what happened in the Maryland game. Eight players got 15 or more minutes, with Thomas and Hill getting five minutes combined. The Badgers won by 11 and outscored the Terps by 17 in the second half. A consistent, three-guard lineup also gave Wisconsin a 9-0 run against Michigan State to close out the first half, leading to this beauty from Zak Showalter.
Roles need to be clarified
Wisconsin got killed repeatedly against Michigan State due to defensive breakdowns and missed rotations. The defense was soft in the middle and the defensive rebounding in the paint—particularly around the free-throw line—was problematic.
Rotation tinkering may have a lot to do with it. Inconsistent lineups breed unfamiliarity and can lead to missed assignments and failed rotations.
Shortening the bench will help, as will consistency in sitting the starters. A shorter rotation with clearly-defined roles and clear expectations about with whom they will be playing should hopefully see some of the defensive lapses seen in the last two games go by the wayside.
Current bracketology has Wisconsin hovering around a six or seven seed. A few wins to close out the season, including at least one or two in the Big Ten tournament, put the Badgers back in the four or five range, including possibly in Milwaukee.
While it would be nice to win the conference, the focus at this point should be on clarifying roles, strengthening offensive identity and getting the rotation down in time for the Big Dance.
It’s been disconcerting to see Wisconsin slide over the past few weeks, but with two winnable games against Iowa and Minnesota to close the regular season, there is still enough time to get well.
If the Badgers figure it out, watch out—this is a resilient, experienced team that can do some damage if things break just right.