Tonight's pre-holiday tilt against Green Bay is critical for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is Greg Gard's debut as interim head coach for Wisconsin. The Badgers (7-5) need to get the new regime off on the right foot and in the process, avoid a misstep that would leave them winless this year against the state's other three Division I programs.
You better believe the Phoenix (6-4) are licking their chops for a shot at the Badgers too. New head coach Linc Darner has brought the same fast-paced brand of basketball to Green Bay that he used to lead Florida Southern to an NCAA Division II championship in 2014-15, capping his stellar 13-year career at that level. Green Bay is averaging 85.4 points per game and leading the Horizon League with 11.3 steals per game as well.
The Phoenix can take heart in knowing experience played a major role when its Horizon League mate Milwaukee pulled an upset in the Kohl Center. After all, Green Bay is led by seniors Carrington Love and do-it-all forward Jordan Fouse, a Racine native. A preseason first-team all-league pick, Fouse is averaging nearly a double-double while Love leads the team in scoring at 18.8 points per game.
On the other hand, Wisconsin is playing at a much slower tempo than Green Bay, its adjusted mark of 63.9 possessions per game, according to Ken Pomeroy's formula, equaling that of Wisconsin's 2013-14 team. That number is buoyed by an outstanding effort on the offensive glass, where each recovery extends a possession. Wisconsin remains the 11th-best offensive rebounding team in the country on a percentage basis and corrals over 40 rebounds per contest overall.
Scoring 69.4 points per game through 12 games, UW's offensive efficiency understandably has fallen off since last year's Big Ten championship-winning campaign. However, the Badgers do feature three starting forwards who all average at least 10 points and six rebounds per outing. Junior Nigel Hayes leads the charge with averages of 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists, both the points and assists being team highs. Vitto Brown showed flashes of his rebounding potential against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and Ethan Happ continues to be Wisconsin's anchor on the block.
The size and tenacity of the Badger front court should come into play against a Green Bay team that is not all that great at rebounding and is particularly vulnerable on defense within the three-point arc.
Badgers add Howard Moore to coaching staff
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In two previous games against high-major opponents this season, the Phoenix surrendered a total of 200 points in losses to Stanford and Georgia Tech. The Cardinal and the Yellow Jackets combined to shoot 56-for-93 (60.2%) on two-point baskets in those games and each team had above average success grabbing offensive boards -- particularly Tech.
Since then, Green Bay has won six of seven. Yet it's telling that two of those games came against non-Division I foes and the lone loss (to Toledo) came in the slowest-paced game it's played to date.
Darner's Phoenix are also still seeking the program's first road win against the Badgers in 18 tries.
Lost in the greatness of recent Wisconsin teams is how talented Green Bay has been. Typically the games in Madison have not been close, yet Fouse and Love were freshmen when Green Bay made a nice run at Wisconsin in 2012, eventually falling 65-54. That team featured prominent Phoenix alumni like Keifer Sykes, Alex Brown, Brennan Cougill and Greg Mays, who all helped Green Bay advance to a postseason tournament in each of the past three years.
Because of the system Green Bay is running under Darner, the team has 10 players playing 10 minutes or more. The Phoenix have started to lean on the shooting of another Wisconsin native, junior Turner Botz, off the bench of late. Wisconsin must counter with production from its younger players -- Charlie Thomas, Khalil Iverson, Alex Illikainen, and even Jordan Hill -- to match Green Bay's bench.
Now that the talent level has equalized somewhat, the challenge for Gard and his current crop of Badgers is to rise from the ashes of a tumultuous start to make sure UW's last stronghold of state dominance does not fall.