Fresh off victorie over the No. 3 Marquette Golden Eagles and the Michigan State Spartans, the Wisconsin Badgers are set to take on the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats on Saturday, looking to extend their six-game winning streak.
The Badgers have risen up into the AP Top 25 after recent wins over Marquette, Virginia, and SMU, while starting their week strong with a double-digit victory over Michigan State.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, have started undefeated, with wins over Michigan State and Duke, en route to earning the top seed in the AP Top 25.
Ahead of Saturday’s matchup, I answered several questions about the start of the season for the Badgers, courtesy of our friends at The Desert Swarm covering the Wildcats.
Q. Wisconsin comes to Tucson winners of six in a row, opening Big Ten play with a victory at Michigan State after beating Marquette at home over the weekend. How has the season gone, in your opinion, and was this expected?
A: I think this season has been an intriguing start. I’ll say there have been some ups and downs, but it’s gone a little better than I expected. Yes, I expected Wisconsin to be significantly improved from last season, but I didn’t know if it would come this fast. But, after some small bumps in the road against Tennessee, and more notably Providence, the Badgers have strung together six straight wins, and have some major victories on their resume early in the season.
Q. The scoring looks to be up considerably from recent seasons. What’s led to the uptick, and is it sustainable?
A: Frankly, it’s been the increase in depth. That was Wisconsin’s key issue last season, and they sought to improve with a strong freshman class, as well as the addition of transfer A.J. Storr, who has quickly risen to the starting lineup and become a key contributor. With the added depth, the Badgers have added to their scoring, athleticism, and aggressiveness. As a result, they’ve attacked the basket more often, leading to a higher efficiency, as well as more free throws, which they’ve hit at a much higher rate in 2023.
Q. Like Arizona, it looks like the Badgers are pretty balanced on offense. Which players are the most likely to go off and have a big game?
A: A.J. Storr is the player to watch, as he’s come straight from the transfer portal to lead the Badgers in scoring at 14.2 points per game. While he’s taken some time to reach more high-quality shots, Storr possesses unique athleticism and has consistently been aggressive, while also finding his three-point shot against Michigan State. Storr can score in a multitude of ways, providing the Badgers with another go-to option that is extremely confident in his scoring, something they didn’t have last year.
Steven Crowl has looked to become more aggressive this season, leading to 12.2 points a contest thus far, and he’s done it at a 60.6 percent clip. While Crowl is an underrated facilitator, he spent the offseason looking to get stronger, which has resulted in better results at the rim.
Chucky Hepburn was the Badgers go-to scorer a year ago, but the lack of scoring options left Hepburn in unfavorable situations, forcing him to take more low-percentage shots. This season, with other scorers around him, Hepburn has settled into an efficient facilitator, taking care of the ball and distributing, while also taking over games when need be. Hepburn has struggled with his three-point shot this season, but has been much better around the rim after spending the offseason becoming lean in hopes of gaining more explosiveness. So far, that’s been evident.
Q. Who controls the pace in this game could play a big role in the outcome, with Arizona playing at one of the fastest tempos and Wisconsin far more methodical. What will Wisconsin do to try and slow things down, and will it be able to hang in an up-and-down affair?
A: Wisconsin just played one of the fastest-paced teams in the country in Marquette and were able to slow the game down a little bit, while also joining in on some of the pace. My guess is that it’ll be a mix of both; Wisconsin will look to slow the pace down a little bit, but ultimately will have to also move at a higher pace than they’re usually accustomed to against Arizona.
Their ability to hang around will be dependent on how well they can start the game off. In their wins against Marquette and Michigan State, the Badgers never trailed, but did let up a lead in the second half before ultimately holding on. They can’t fall behind against Arizona, otherwise; they’ll face some uncomfortable territory in trying to come back for a victory.
Q. Greg Gard was an assistant on the back-to-back Final Four teams (no need to open old wounds and discuss those Elite Eights) but since taking over for Bo Ryan he hasn’t gone past the Sweet 16 last made the second weekend in 2017. Is he in and way on the hot seat?
A: I don’t think so. Last season was a disaster, but Gard openly acknowledged that and pointed out how this season would be much different. And it has been. Gard has been an underrated coach, given the way that Wisconsin plays, but I truly believe he’s done a great job to begin the season in preparing and developing a Badgers team that is returning a majority of their players. I expect Wisconsin to be among the top-five teams in the Big Ten and Gard to see better results than a season ago to keep his job firmly safe away from “hot seat” talk.
Q. Prediction time: can Wisconsin be the first nonconference team to beat Tommy Lloyd in Tucson or will Arizona remain No. 1 for at least another week? Give us a score pick.
A: While Wisconsin has been on a tear recently, including two wins over Marquette and Michigan State, I don’t see them beating top-seeded Arizona on the road this weekend. It’s been a tough slate of games for the Badgers, and Arizona’s fast pace is hitting them at a bad time. They also haven’t faced the challenge that Arizona provides on the interior yet, which should be a good matchup, and the Wildcats are very well-rounded, which counters Wisconsin’s depth.
I don’t think Arizona scores to the ranks they’ve been able to, but also think they’ll pull out a victory at home here. Score: 72-68 Wildcats.