Sunday is a big opportunity for a Wisconsin men's basketball team sorely in need of momentum. The Badgers (2-2) are coming off a disappointing 71-61 loss to Georgetown, but have another chance on Sunday to pick up a win against a quality foe in Madison Square Garden. Wisconsin faces VCU (2-1) at 2:30 p.m. CT.
Nigel Hayes broke out of a mini-slump with 22 points against Georgetown, but he committed his first three turnovers of the season and continues to shoot under 42 percent. Meanwhile, Bronson Koenig suffered through his worst game of the season Friday. It's no surprise the Wisconsin's best outcome, against Siena, came when both Hayes and Koenig both had good games. The Badgers certainly want to nip this uneven play in the bud, rather than still be trying to figure out what they're doing heading into consecutive games against Oklahoma, Syracuse and Temple. Wisconsin has not had a .500 record this late in the season since Bo Ryan's first year on the bench, in 2001-02, when the team was 8-8 in January.
Incredibly, Ryan's first season was also the only time he and the Badgers had to tote around a losing record at any point in a season. Wisconsin is in danger of matching that distinction against VCU, a team that led No. 5 Duke into the second half two days ago. Though Oregon, Wis. native Shake Smart has moved on, VCU looks like a tournament team again under Will Wade.
In order to salvage a win, here are three key areas in which Wisconsin must excel to conclude their NYC road trip.
Despite their inexperience, one thing the freshmen have definitely contributed this year has been an offensive rebounding prowess. Thanks to Ethan Happ, Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas, Wisconsin is retrieving more than four out of every 10 misses on their own end, a level UW has never approached over a full season. In fact, Bo Ryan is famous for teaching his players to eschew offensive boards to get back on defense, so it's probably because of such inexperience that we are seeing this phenomenon.
However, the second chances haven't always converted into points because the young guys cannot seem to convert at the rim yet. One would expect the conversions to be a season-long issue, but one that should at least improve a little as the year goes by. For now, Wisconsin will take those second chances as it tries to figure out a third scoring option and hope the bunnies fall a little easier against an undersized VCU team than they have previously. The Rams rarely play either of their players who are taller than 6-7 and as a result, are only an average defensive rebounding team statistically.
The Georgetown game may have turned for good midway through the second half when the Badgers committed turnovers on four straight possessions (and five out of six) after cutting the Hoya lead to two, at 36-34. Georgetown converted that into a 7-0 run and UW never threatened again.
You know another team that knows how to turn games with turnovers? Yup, VCU sure does. Wade's teams at Chattanooga weren't great at forcing turnovers during his two-year stint there, but reunited with Shaka Smart's pieces, Wade will maintain the havoc-style defense of his predecessor. The Rams are currently third in the nation in steal percentage, swiping the ball on 16.4 percent of possessions. While Bronson Koenig is typically a very reliable ballhandler, not withstanding Friday's miscues, his supporting cast isn't yet. Expect Koenig to another 40 minutes Sunday afternoon and VCU to swarm the block whenever Hayes, Iverson, Thomas or Vitto Brown touch the ball. Wisconsin must be smart and decisive with the ball.
VCU's Melvin Johnson got hot early against the Blue Devils, scoring 12 of his team-high 20 points in the first half of Friday's nightcap. The senior guard finished 4-of-6 behind the arc, an area of concern for Wisconsin, which has allowed opponents to shoot a blistering 46.4 percent on three-pointers. Through four games now, I'm not sure it's entirely an aberration anymore -- UW's closeouts need fixing.
It doesn't appear that the Rams have very many complimentary threats next to Johnson on the outside, but you could have said the same thing about about Georgetown's Reggie Cameron and Isaac Copeland prior to Friday, when they were a combined 7-of-10 from deep. And it's not just about outside shooting either. Badger fans have seen a little too much "olé" defense than they are used to from players we expected to be more stout on that end, namely Zak Showalter and Hayes.