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How Tyler Wahl’s free throw dilemma has changed the Badgers season

The forward has seen slight improvements, which have had drastic impacts for the Badgers.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in a close game on Tuesday against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, trailing by a point with the clock sitting at 34 seconds left in the second half.

It had been a whirlwind of a contest, as the Badgers had led by as many as 15, but a barrage of threes in the second half led Minnesota back, resulting in a back-and-forth game over the final minutes.

How did Wisconsin ultimately pull this one out? Free throws.

Yep. The same problem that cost the Badgers on several occasions in 2022 ultimately ended up being their savior in their first close victory of the season.

Last season, the Badgers were 11th in free throw percentage in the conference, while shooting the second-least free throws in the Big Ten.

This season, Wisconsin is the best free-throw shooting team in the conference, while shooting the seventh-most on a per-game basis, which makes sense, given their pace.

That came to an ultimatum on Tuesday, when A.J. Storr was fouled with 26 seconds left and the Badgers down one point to the Gophers. Storr stepped to the line and calmly sunk both free throws.

Then, following a missed shot, Tyler Wahl was fouled and sent to the free throw line with five seconds remaining and the Badgers up one. Just like Storr, he stepped to the line and sunk both shots, which allowed Wisconsin to foul up three points, leaving Minnesota with a low chance of pulling off the tie.

Wahl’s free-throw shooting has been a point of conversation this season, as he has gotten to the line 90 times this season, the most for any Wisconsin player, while converting 70 percent of his shots, a seven-percent increase from his 2022 mark.

In 2023, Wahl is on pace to reach a number of career highs, as he’s averaging 11.7 points per game, while shooting 56.4 percent from the field and 70 percent from the line on 4.7 attempts a contest, which are all the best of his career.

Wahl’s jump has been incredibly important, as the forward has attacked the rim with more authority this season, leading to a significant increase in field goal percentage, as well as more opportunities at the line, making it even more crucial that he hits free throws in 2023.

More importantly, the forward has improved as the season went along, as he has shot 75.7 percent from the line (53/70) since the Fort Myers Tip-Off, which came after Wisconsin’s early season struggles where head coach Greg Gard challenged the team’s big men to play with more authority down low.

Through 19 games, Wahl’s improved shooting at the line has reflected on the rest of the team, as the whole group has been more aggressive as a whole, resulting in a high success rate at the free throw line.

If the Badgers can continue on their current trajectory at the free-throw line, they’ll be in good shape heading into the stretch run of the season, and it’ll likely come down to how Tyler Wahl continues to perform, given his volume at the line.