The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team finally opens their season after a long offseason of questioning whether or not Greg Gard can actually recruit and stewing over getting blown out by Oregon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Ethan Happ is gone and Micah Potter is ineligible, but the Badgers are still champing at the bit to get on the court and play a real, live game. Their first opponent is a tough one as Wisconsin will travel to Sioux Falls, S.D. to play the No. 20 Saint Mary’s Gaels.
Will Maupin of our SB Nation cousins, Mid-Major Madness, stopped by to help get us ready for the game.
Who are the top two players on Saint Mary’s that Badger fans should be aware of before the game?
Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts. Ford, a senior guard, is landing on preseason lists of best players in the country. He burst onto the scene last year with an expanded role that saw him average 21 points per game. He’s a fearless shooter from deep with a great floater for when he’s inside the arc. Ford was forced to play point guard for the first half of last season, and he’s more than capable of running offense. But, once Randy Bennett tweaked the offense and allowed Ford to play more off the ball he, and the team, began to thrive.
Last season was the first in a Saint Mary’s uniform for Fitts, a junior forward who started his career at South Florida. He wasted no time making an impact in Moraga, averaging 15 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He’s capable at every level as a scorer with three point touch, face-up and back to the basket abilities. His handles make him a match up nightmare. Slow-footed bigs can’t stay in front of him on the perimeter and smaller guards can’t stop him from imposing his will once he gets into the paint.
What style of play do the Gaels employ? Are they going to be ok with Wisconsin’s slow pace?
There probably won’t be a slower game all season than this one. Wisconsin plays slow and Saint Mary’s plays even slower. Three times in the past four seasons the Gaels have averaged fewer possessions per game than the Badgers. This year, KenPom projects Saint Mary’s to play at the second slowest tempo in Division I, behind only Virginia. That’s exactly what happened in 2017.
Unlike Wisconsin, which plays slow for defensive reasons, Saint Mary’s slow tempo is all in the name of offensive efficiency. The Gaels play like the San Antonio Spurs of a few years back. Ball screens, swinging motion and extra passes play out over and over for about 20 seconds per possession. Three years ago the Gaels ranked eighth nationally in assist rate. Last year they ranked dead last. Their offensive efficiency and tempo numbers in those two seasons, though, are almost identical. This team will get the best possible shot every time down the floor.
Where might Wisconsin have an advantage against Saint Mary’s?
First of all, this is going to be a really good game. It’s great for the sport to have a high-level, power conference team like Wisconsin schedule a high-level, mid-major team like Saint Mary’s. But why on Earth is this game being played in Sioux Falls? I’m not a fan of neutral site games generally, but this one is a real head-scratcher. Honestly though, I think that’s the only advantage Wisconsin will have in this game. Sioux Falls is in the middle of nowhere, and simultaneously on the fringe of Big Ten country.
How is Saint Mary’s able to recruit Australia and New Zealand so well?
Australia and Saint Mary’s have gone from afterthoughts in the basketball world to legitimate players over the past two decades. When Adam Caporn and then Daniel Kickert arrived at Saint Mary’s in the early 2000s, they did so like basically every other international player from any random country. Back home, those guys spread the word to other players at Australia’s National Institute of Sport.
As Australia’s talent level rose, Saint Mary’s prominence did as well. Patty Mills went to the NBA Draft from Moraga. Matthew Dellavedova walked in the door as Mills walked out, and then went on to play in back-to-back NBA Finals alongside LeBron James.
Now guys like Ben Simmons are coming out of Australia, and plenty of programs with more clout and resources are recruiting down under. But, every Aussie prospect coming through the system watched Patty, Delly and year after year of fellow Australians develop into professional players in Randy Bennett’s system. The Gaels got down there first and they got lucky in doing so. This season six players on the roster are from Australia or New Zealand.
What is your final score prediction and who leads the Gaels in scoring?
I’ll say Saint Mary’s wins 64-56 in a 55 possession game. Jordan Ford would be my guess for leading scorer in the game.