Last night, Wisconsin (19-3, 8-1) won a relatively close game in Champaign, limiting the Illini to a season-low in points on their way to a 57-43 victory. As the Badgers are now halfway through conference play, there are some important takeaways to note before Indiana comes to Madison on Sunday.
Continued struggles at the free throw line for Happ and Hayes
Commentators choose to focus on the team when addressing Wisconsin’s abysmal free throw shooting this season, but when it comes down to it, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes are the problem. Undoubtedly team leaders in most other major categories, the free throw line has been unkind to the two Wisconsin players named to the Wooden Midseason Top 25 list. The team is shooting 268/408 (65.7%) from the free-throw line this season, putting them above only Michigan State and Rutgers in the Big Ten. That’s largely due to Happ and Hayes, who have made 122 and attempted 218, for a combined percentage of 56%. Happ’s 47/94 (50%) is only slightly below average for a center built the way he is, but much like his predecessor Frank Kaminsky, he gets to the line quite a lot. As noted in the last couple of Badger games, most other aspects of his game are very solid – he’s notably the only NCAA players to lead their team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in conference play this season. Beyond developing a jump shot, free throws are one of the only major holes in Happ’s game.
Nigel Hayes, on the other hand, has less excuses. He’s shooting 75/124 (60.5%) this season, having attempted the most free throws on the team. He’s never been a great free-throw shooter, but in both 2015-2016 and 2014-2015, he averaged above 70% from the line, shooting 73.6% and 74.4%, respectively. Additionally, the lower confidence in free throw shooting may be contributing to the fact that Hayes is getting to the line almost two times less per game this season – 5.7 compared to 7.4 attempts last year. This is a serious concern to address for the lauded Badger going forward.
Back to the basics on defense
Anyone watching the Wisconsin-Illinois game may have noticed how typically, well, “Wisconsin” it was. Both teams shot pretty poorly, with the Badgers going 24/59 (40.7%) and Illinois shooting just 16/58 (27.6%). If anything, though, it was a confidence boost for a Wisconsin team that had recently taken a step or two back on defense.
The Badgers now have three straight games of holding opponents to under 60 points in regulation, albeit those were against Penn State, Rutgers and Illinois. Before that, a Minnesota game that saw overtime and the allowance of 76 points on 46.9% shooting was concerning. But it seems that Wisconsin has figured everything out. On Tuesday night, the Badgers dipped to allowed under 60 points per game on the season, giving up just 59.8 every time they step on the court. That’s best in the Big Ten by almost four points, and top five in the nation. The next time out, Wisconsin will face the second-best offense in the Big Ten in Indiana, but if anything, their defense should be relied on.
Return of the Moesch, and critical bench play
As noted above, last Thursday we mentioned that Moesch had been practicing with the top rotation, and the result of this practice came to fruition as the ‘Stache got four minutes at the end of the first half on Tuesday. He came up big, grabbing three offensive boards en route to a 13-point halftime lead for the Badgers.
Moesch’s play is emblematic of what Wisconsin will need going forward from their bench. There’s no doubt D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson have given crucial minutes in nearly every game this season, but those deeper on the bench, like Moesch, Thomas, Hill and Illikainen will be relied upon in lower-pressure situations – say, when Hayes or Happ pick up two fouls in the first half – to alleviate the exhaustion of the starters. Moesch and Hill have tasted the Final Four before, and Illikainen, Thomas and Iverson all have tournament experience. Expect Gard to call their numbers in critical moments over the final nine games of the regular season.
Wisconsin (19-3, 8-1) takes on Indiana at 12 p.m. CT in the Kohl Center on Sunday. The game can be seen on CBS.