Coming off a national championship appearance and back-to-back Final Fours, the expectations for this year’s Wisconsin Badgers were going to be too high. Even if fans didn’t realize that Wisconsin has the most freshmen (8) on a roster in the country, they figured the team would be fine under Bo Ryan. But, as Coach Ryan has said consistently through the first five games, this team is young and inexperienced and “has a long way to go.” There’s no doubt that this team will be able to put it together when it comes down to it, but the growing pains are expected, and that’s something Badger fans may not have realized going into this season. So, what have we learned thus far about the 2015-16 Badgers through five games?

DATE OPPONENT RESULT RECORD
Fri, Nov 13 vs. Western Illinois L (69-67) 0-1
Sun, Nov 15 vs. Siena W (92-65) 1-1
Tue, Nov 17 vs. North Dakota W (78-64)
2-1
Fri, Nov 20 vs. Georgetown
(New York, NY)
L (71-61) 2-2
Sun, Nov 22 vs. VCU
(New York, NY)
W (74-73) 3-2

Wisconsin is 3-2 after losing a stunner to Western Illinois and playing poorly against a likely tournament team in Georgetown. They did, however, take care of business against Siena and North Dakota at home, as well as beat another likely tournament team in VCU on Sunday. Furthermore, Northern Iowa, who the Badgers beat in a secret scrimmage before the season started, beat #1 UNC over the weekend. That game will not count for anything, but it reminds the Badgers that they are a tournament-caliber team and can compete down the stretch.

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1. Nigel Hayes is struggling to shoot effectively from the field and free throw line, and he needs to keep attacking the rim.

Wisconsin is suffering from Hayes’s struggles from the field, as his effective shooting percentage of 46.30% from the field is fourth among the team’s starters and lower than the team’s effective shooting of 48.46%. The junior forward acknowledged a few weeks ago that he changed his shot over the summer, which Bo Ryan was unaware of, and it’s clear that Hayes is still trying to figure out his role as the third tallest player and essentially the small forward/”3″ on the court. Badgers fans are catching on to all of this, and the question I keep receiving is pretty consistent: “Why isn’t Nigel going inside when his post moves are so good?” It all has to do with trying out his new shot, playing more as a wing, and (I had to admit it, but) probably getting ready for the NBA. It’s also worth noting that Hayes’s new shot has him only shooting 64% from the free throw line, down from 74% last season. Look for Hayes to go to the rim much more as the season goes on, which will only help his outside game with effective pump fakes.

2. Bronson Koenig is Wisconsin’s most important player.

We saw this Friday against Georgetown when Koenig had probably the worst game of his career shooting 2-12 from the field in the 71-61 loss. Then, on Sunday, he dropped 22 points including the game-winning layup in what was an excellent game by Koenig. The Badgers are not deep enough at the guard position, so they need Koenig to stay consistent and lead them. The junior point guard is averaging 17.6 points per game with a 1.78 assist to turnover ratio, and he’s shooting the ball well. Although he’s struggled defensively at times, he’s one of the only Badgers who has been able to move his feet well and avoid committing fouls. One defensive stat that’s surprising about Koenig? He has not recorded a steal all season.

3. Rebounding has been excellent even with lower production from Hayes.

Wisconsin has outrebounded opponents by an average of 8.2 rebounds per game. Three starters (Happ, Brown, and Showalter) are averaging 5.8 rebounds or more per game individually. The Badgers are especially doing an excellent job on the offensive glass, grabbing 76 offensive rebounds this season. In comparison to last season, the Badgers are averaging over six more rebounds per game. The only player that could be rebounding a bit more is Hayes, who is only averaging 4.2 rebounds per game after averaging 6.2 last season.

4. Ethan Happ is living up to the hype on offense, but his defense is still a work in progress.

We came into this season expecting and hearing a lot about the redshirt freshman in the offseason. After some questionable performances early on, Happ earned all tournament honors in the 2K Classic over the weekend, in which he had two double-doubles. His 10.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in 24 minutes per game have been impressive, but he’s really struggled defensively. It’s apparent that Happ is slightly undersized for the position he plays, but his inability to move his feet well and protect the rim has really cost Wisconsin this year. Similar to Vitto Brown, Happ has been in foul trouble in almost every game, which has limited his time on the court. His defense will only improve as time goes on, and going against Frank Kaminsky in practice last season should help his growth.

5. Zak Showalter is more integral to this team than anyone would have thought.

Many didn’t know what to expect after Showy only played 7.6 minutes per game last season. Fortunately for the Badgers, Showalter has played like Josh Gasser this season, averaging 7.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 33 minutes per game. On defense, he’s taking charges and playing with energy, which was expected. Showalter should get even more shots and touches as the season progresses despite his low percentages, as his usage rate of 13.17% is the lowest on the team among players in the rotation.

6. Vitto Brown has improved, but his inconsistent play on offense and defense is driving people crazy.

Brown, who only played 6.8 minutes per game last season, has had a lot of shining moments for the Badgers, but also a lot of head scratching moments. He was arguably the best player on the court against North Dakota and led a valiant comeback effort against Western Illinois earlier in the season. He’s averaging 10.8 and 5.8 rebounds in only 25.2 minutes per game. His shot has clearly improved, which has resulted in him taking 10.4 shots per game. He’s only shooting 40% from the field, and it’s clear that his team high usage rate of 25.91% has a direct correlation with that considering he plays only the fourth most minutes on the team. He also has been in foul trouble in almost every game, which has led to less minutes. As Brown continues to get game action, his defense and footwork down low will improve. For now, Wisconsin fans just need to be patient with the 6’8″ forward.

7. Opponents are shooting a crazy 43.5% from 3-point against the Badgers, which is bound to go down.

This obviously says something about the Badgers’ perimeter defense, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this number is just bound to go down. Wisconsin has played some teams like Georgetown with bigs that can really shoot from the outside, and North Dakota also lit it up from three last week. Teams cannot consistently shoot that well; the Badgers have just been caught in games where the other team has got hot from deep. Still, I’m sure we’ll see Bo Ryan’s team practicing defending the three in practice this week.

8. Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas are struggling from the field, which is strange with their styles of play.

Both freshmen have made impacts on the team so far this season as the sixth and seventh guys in the rotation. Iverson, an athletic guard that can get to the rim, does not take a lot of shots. His numbers are actually skewed from one game where he went 1-6, and he’s surprisingly taken three 3-pointers (made one). Since he’s a slasher and driver, I’m surprised that he’s only shooting 37% from the field. Look for Iverson to drive even more as the season goes on and draw more fouls, where he’s shooting 60% (6-10) from the free throw line. Thomas, on the other hand, can go inside and out with a pretty nice stroke. He’s missed a lot of layups and jump hooks close to the basket this season, which the coaching staff will obviously clean up. The biggest issue for Thomas? He’s shooting the ball way too quickly and not concentrating as a result of freshmen jitters.

9. Wisconsin’s assist to turnover rate is a cause for concern.

In past seasons, Wisconsin has led the country with the least turnovers per game. Last year, the team only averaged 7 turnovers per game, but this season they’re averaging 10.2, which is a direct result of having a young team that hasn’t played much together. Then there’s the 11.4 assists, which is down from 13 per game last season. The team’s 1.12 assists to turnover ratio is much better than their opponent’s .93 ratio, but the Badgers are lacking in their playmaking, ball-handling, and ball security this season.

10. Bo Ryan’s team has a long way to go, but the non-conference schedule is going to help a lot in the end regardless of wins and losses.

Wisconsin has already played tough opponents in Georgetown and VCU, and they’ll still face #7 Oklahoma and Syracuse, Temple, and Marquette (don’t let their records fool you) before the Big Ten season begins. The Badgers will get to play quality teams in comparison to some other programs around the nation, which will go a long way with a tough Big Ten schedule lying ahead. Even if Wisconsin heads into Big Ten play with a 10-3, 9-4 or 8-5 record, what matters is the experience they can gain from these games. The tournament committee looks for quality of opponents just as much as losses.

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