Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wisconsin Badger 2014 Tournament Preview

Is this the year Bo Ryan silences the doubters with a Final Four run?

Let’s start out with some comparisons. The 2006-2007 team was by most accounts Bo Ryan’s most successful regular season team. They climbed all the way to a number one ranking in the AP poll, a first in program history. The Badgers also took advantage of the NCAA’s summer exhibition in a foreign country rule and began the year with a trip to Italy. Flash forward to 2014. Wisconsin started the season with a trip to Canada going 4-1 against top college programs north of the border and climbed to a top 5 ranking. But the similarities don’t stop there.

Highest Rank
Points Scored
Points Allowed
KenPom Off. Effenciency
KenPom Def. Efficiency
KenPom Tempo
NCAA seed

Don't forget about Brian Butch and Alando Tucker, part of the only Badger team to be ranked #1 in the country

The 2007 and 2014 teams were strikingly similar. This year’s team is better offensively and the Alando Tucker and Brian Butch led team stouter defensively. Even more amazing was both teams averaged 64.4 possessions a game. However, 2014 has one distinct advantage of 2007, this year the Badgers enter the tournament healthy (losing Brian Butch with a dislocated elbow against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament was a killer for that NCAA tournament run).

In order to avoid the early tournament exit here are few keys for Wisconsin to advance out of the West Region.

How Wisconsin Wins the West

Get Sam Dekker back on track.

Dekker has been in a self-admitted mini slump the past few weeks. After scoring 16 points against Indiana February 25  in a 69-58 win, Dekker was averaging 13.6 points a game. The next five games, including the Big Ten Tournament, Dekker averaged 7.8 points and saw his season average dip down to 12.7 points a game.

More attacking from Dekker will mean a more dangerous offense.
One of the best aspects of Sam’s game is his unselfishness. While his willingness to involve teammates is admirable, especially when the Badgers have plenty of scorers, the NCAA tournament is a different matter. Someone has to be willing to take over games. Frank Kaminsky has shown he can be the go to scorer at times this season (25 and 21 points in road wins against Michigan and Iowa). But Kaminksy also has a penchant for picking up fouls (2 points, 20 minutes, 4 fouls at Illinois and 9 points, 15 minutes and 2 quick first half fouls).

Lack of aggression has plagued Dekker on occasion throughout the season. Against Ohio State Bo Ryan incredulously mocked Sam’s weak-hearted effort cutting the hoop. But when Sam is on the attack, driving to the hoop or grabbing rebounds, the Badgers are better. In Badgers 26 wins, Dekker averages 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists. In six losses his averages dropped to 10.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and less than one assist. Sam is one of the few Badger players that can generate shots off the dribble and when he is aggressive it creates more open shots for everyone.

In order for Wisconsin to advance out the West Region one player will need establish themselves as the go to man. My money is on Slam Dekker.

Freshman Contributions

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have emerged as key cogs to a Badger tournament run

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig were wildcards at the beginning of the season. With one senior playing regular minutes, how quickly the two freshman could adjust to big time college basketball would go a long way toward determining the team's success. Consider Hayes and Koenig as having passed that test.

Hayes really came on during Big Ten conference play, upping his per game average by over three per game.  He gives Wisconsin another mismatch with his offensive versatility.  He can take bigger guys off the dribble with his quickness and patented post move Chocolate Tornado. Conversely he can hit the mid-range jump shot with enough consistency to keep defenders honest.

Koenig on the other hand has had more of an up and down season playing behind three upper classmen in the back court. But after his 14 point outburst against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, he demonstrated his ability to provide more than just consistent ball handling and decision making off the bench. If Koenig can continue to hit the outside shot, the Badgers will have seven of eight rotation players as legitimate three point threats.

If both Hayes and Koenig can continue their aggressive play they will a great chance to showcase their skills on a national stage in the tournament.

What Sends Wisconsin Home

No Defensive Stops

Without question Wisconsin has struggled on the defensive end this season, sometimes for long stretches. During the January stretch when the Badgers lost five out of six games in two weeks, they allowed opponents to shoot 51.2% on field goal attempts including a blistering 48% from behind the arc. No matter how potent the offense is compared to previous Badger teams, you cannot win allowing teams to shoot nearly 50% from three point land.

Collectively the Badgers have a tendency to lapse into lackadaisical defense. Their miscommunication was on full display in the January 22 loss at Minnesota. Sam Dekker chases non-shooting threat Oto Osenieks out toward the three point line as he attempts to screen Ben Brust guarding Austin Hollins. Brust anticipates Dekker to switch and take Hollins as he drives to the hoop. But Dekker keeps trailing Osenieks(again – a career 23% three point shooter) and Brust turns Hollins loose. The result is painful.

It doesn't get much better either. The following is a list of teams the Badgers could potentially face and their offensive efficiency from KenPom.  If Wisconsin advances to Dallas in the Final Four they will have to beat some of the top offenses in the country. Yikes.

KenPom Off. Eff.
Round Facing
First Round
Round of 32
Round of 32
Sweet Sixteen
Sweet Sixteen
Elite Eight
Oklahoma State
Elite Eight

While they cannot be expected to suddenly turn into a defensive juggernaut, Wisconsin will need to shore up the communication and find a way to get a few big stops in order to keep dancing into March.

Front Court Foul Trouble

Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes must stay on the floor.

The front court depth has been a concern all season. Certainly the emergence of Nigel Hayes has provided some relief, but he still has a tendency to pick up silly fouls. Frank Kaminsky has turned into a reliable defensive anchor and protects the rim well. However, his penchant for challenging shots almost always results in a stretch each game with him on bench infoul trouble.

Behind Hayes and Kaminsky the Badgers are dangerously thin in post players. Sam Dekker and Duje Dukan are more comfortable playing on the wing, freshman Vitto Brown and senior Evan Anderson are not quite ready for long stretches playing big time basketball.

Additionally Hayes and Kaminsky are the most consistent only post threats the Badgers have. Without those two on the floor, the Badgers become way too reliable on outside jump shots. As noted above Wisconsin will have to face some potent offenses to advance out of the region and in all likelihood will have win one game in a shootout (not something Bo Ryan teams are accustomed to).

Certainly the Badgers have enough capable shooters to get hot and bomb three pointers a la Jon Bryant in 2000. But this year the Badgers have been most potent when they work inside out. Without Kaminksy and Hayes getting the ball in the post, the Badgers have become too reliant on outside jumpers. Getting the defense to collapse with those two attacking inside allows the open outside shots to develop.

Unless Dekker is reinvigorated slashing and attacking the rim, Hayes and Kaminsky are the best bets to keep the offensive from being one dimensional. It is imperative to keep them out of foul trouble and out on the floor.

The Verdict

Ben Brust and Sam Dekker have Wisconsin poised for its first Final Four since 2000

I still think this Badger team has shades of Michigan from last year. Both teams were undefeated in non-conference play and struggled somewhat in the rugged and physical Big Ten. Once Michigan entered the tournament, their offensive prowess was on full display and they were 20 minutes of a national title.

Wisconsin is built a lot like that team. Not nearly as defensive oriented as Bo Ryan teams of yesteryear, the Badgers are versatile on offense. They have a nice balance of scoring. 45% of the Badger's points come on two point shots, while 31% are on three point makes. The division one average is 51% and 27% respectively. 

They have also won games in a variety of styles and pace. The Badgers have beaten teams scoring in the 100s, 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s and 40s, an incredible range that speaks to their flexibility. Tournament games are often about match-ups, and Wisconsin has shown the ability to match anything they face. A good sign for the randomness and unpredictability of March Madness.

Something tells me this will be the year Bo Ryan finally gets to the Final Four. The team is talented, the bracket isn’t overwhelming and eventually, a coach as good a Bo gets to the Final Four, right?

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

- Neal Olson

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