MADISON — The Badgers are finally playing their first marquee opponent in the Kohl Center this season, as they play #22 Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the second straight year.

Syracuse presents some different challenges than previous teams Wisconsin has faced up to this point. The Orange run their classic 2-3 zone under head coach Jim Boeheim, something the Badgers gained some experience of in last year’s contest.

One key of breaking down the zone will be getting the ball to Nigel Hayes in the middle of the floor, according to Bronson Koenig. 

“Nigel is a great operator down there whether that’s passing or scoring for himself,” Koenig said after practice Monday. 

Coming off of his best game of the season against Prairie View A&M, Hayes shot a perfect 5/5 from the field, scoring 17 points. His focus on scoring in the paint helped him reach the free throw line eight times. As Koenig mentioned, both Hayes’s scoring and passing abilities will be important for Wisconsin against Syracuse. He leads the team, despite being a forward, in assists averaging 2.6 assists per game. Making clean, accurate passes through the holes of the Orange’s defense will be a point of emphasis for the Badgers.

The importance of passing, although it may sound simple, was something Jordan Hill echoed as well. Hill said of the team’s approach against the zone, “Make smart decisions against it, and don’t get too three happy.”

If Hayes can dominate the middle, scoring himself while also dropping the ball down to Ethan Happ on the block or kicking out to Koenig on the perimeter, the Badgers could have some major success on the offensive end. Going back to last year’s game, Hayes led the Badgers in assists in the win over Syracuse with six.

The Orange’s length and athleticism also received attention from the Badgers. 

“With their length and everything they like to block shots and steal passes,” Koenig said.

Hill added of Syracuse, “It’s a really long, athletic team. They take up a lot of space on the floor. I think everybody that starts is 6’5″ or above.”

 Hill’s research was correct, the Orange’s shortest starter is 6’5″ point guard John Gillon.

Syracuse is currently 12th in the country with 6.8 blocks per game, amassing 34 blocks in just five games. Paschal Chukwu, Syracuse’s 7’2″ center that comes off the bench, averages 2.2 blocks per game by himself. Chukwu plays at the base of the 2-3 zone and will make it more difficult than usual for the much shorter Ethan Happ to get easy buckets at the rim. Happ had a lot of success last year against Syracuse in what was his breakout game in his freshman campaign. Happ scored 18 points and  grabbed 15 rebounds.

Whether or not the Badgers can break down the 2-3 zone will be a major factor in deciding whether the Badgers can help the Big Ten gain a lead in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Both conferences are tied at one win after Monday night’s results.

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