The Wisconsin Badgers lost to the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday in a 61-51 loss, dropping them to 12-8 on the season after originally starting 11-2.
One of their biggest issues? They couldn’t effectively stop guard/forward Matthew Mayer, who scored 26 points on 9/19 shooting, while being matched up against freshman Connor Essegian several times when the starters were in.
Outside of Mayer, the Illini shot just 40% from the field and 1/9 from deep, signifying how important he was to their offensive attack, which raised questions as to why the Badgers didn’t make an adjustment defensively with Essegian.
Speaking with reporters after the game, head coach Greg Gard talked about Wisconsin’s defensive issues, which primarily came via straight line drives.
“A lot of [Illinois’s offense] was straight-line [drives to the rim]. [Matthew] Meyer got to the rim. You know, when he gets going, you know, he’s an older version, bigger version of what Connor is. He has those days, when the ball starts going in, and he feels really confident,” said Gard.
However, Gard singled out Essegian as the player that had to improve defensively, understanding his struggles against Illinois.
“Another guy’s got to get better. It’s obvious Connor [Essegian’s] a freshman, and Connor has a lot of defensive learning to still acquire, and it showed. You got a senior in Matthew Mayer that really took it to him at times, and that was an area that he’s got to continue to grow and get better and understand,” Gard said. “That’s an area that he’s got a ways to go.”
While Gard didn’t like the matchup, he felt that Essegian was best suited for Meyer, given the other assignments with Illinois’s team.
“Well, we looked at putting [Connor Essegian] on different guys. I’m not going to put him on Terrence Shannon, right? Not going to put him on a point guard. Then we go to Hawkins. And when Hawkins gets little guys on him, he goes to the post. So the matchup that was best suited for Connor was Matt Meyer. So, because otherwise, who would we put on Terrence Shannon? And, if I take Max and put him on Meyer, you know,” said Gard.
“That’s the difference in the maturity of Max and the experience. You got a freshman in Connor and a senior in Meyer and a junior in Klesmit. And, just the experience and the strength that’s been gained, it was a senior that saw freshmen and took advantage of it.”
Despite the tough defensive game, Gard believes that Essegian will continue to improve as he plays more.
“That’s a good challenge for Connor to get better, and teammates need to help him. Everybody’s gone through it. I’ll name you a bunch of freshmen that have played here over the last 25 years that struggled defensively, to put it mildly. And over time, they get better. So, Connor will. Connor will get better.”
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood himself said that he liked the matchup of Meyer against Essegian, and although it wasn’t necessarily scripted, the battle was favorable for the Illini.
“When [Connor Essegian] was on Matt, we liked that matchup. Senior against a freshman. Matt’s got three or four inches. Not as scripted as you might think, but we liked that matchup,” said Underwood.
While it may have been the best matchup for Essegian pregame, with the way that Mayer was connecting, be it on drives or via the three-ball, it’s tough to understand why the Badgers didn’t experiment with making a change as the game prolonged.
However, to Gard’s point, guard Max Klesmit had a terrific performance defensively in shutting down Illinois guard Terrence Shannon, who made just 2/6 of his shots.
With Essegian’s offensive struggles, as the guard couldn’t buy a bucket against Illinois, an argument could’ve been made to replace the freshman with veteran Jordan Davis, whose defense would’ve helped Wisconsin match up better.
Still, allowing the freshman to work through his struggles could provide a strong learning lesson as he improves his defense, although it came at the cost of a valuable conference game.
A solution? A potential box-and-one, although Gard hasn’t been known to deploy the strategy much.
But, all is in the past, as the Badgers are now focused on their Thursday matchup against Ohio State, where they’ll look to snap a three-game winning streak and get back on track.