Football season? It’s November, people. While Badgers football is stumbling to a disappointing finish, optimism for Wisconsin athletics should be renewed now that basketball is finally being played in Madtown. The wonderful thing about Wisconsin basketball are their expectations – there was no #4 preseason ranking, no Sports Illustrated articles, and no Lee Corso picking them to win the national championship. The 2018 Wisconsin basketball team is starting its season with little media fanfare and manageable expectations, and, as we all know, that’s when the Badgers thrive.
The eyes of the nation weren’t exactly on Coppin State @ Wisconsin on Tuesday – Duke vs. Kentucky and the midterm elections might have attracted more viewers. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit I had to look up where Coppin State was. (Baltimore, MD) Still, the Badgers showed promise in their 85-63 win Tuesday night, most notably in the performance of Ethan Happ. Happ, the consensus 2nd best player in the Big 10, opened his season with a triple double, tallying 10 rebounds, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists. D’Mitrik Trice, who received a medical redshirt last year, led the team with 21 points on 5 of 9 shooting from beyond the arc. Brevin Pritzl, boasting perhaps the perfect Wisconsin name, added 16 of his own off the bench.
Coppin State was a nice feel-good story for a team that was decimated by injuries last year, but Wisconsin will get the first real test on Tuesday when they travel to Cincinnati to take on the Xavier Musketeers. The Badgers will have a chance to get revenge on Xavier for last season’s 80-70 loss, in which J.P. Macura famously taunted the Badgers student section. Neither team is ranked in the AP top 25, but Wisconsin, who return more talent than the Musketeers, are likely to be favored.
Xavier, who earned a #1 seed in last year’s tournament before bowing out to #9 seed Florida State in the second round, are relying on graduate transfers to replenish the talent they lost to graduation over the offseason. Ryan Welage, who finished with the sixth most points in San Jose State history, is the headliner, and he scored 24 points in the Musketeers opener against IUPUI, a game Xavier won 82-69. Kyle Castlin, who transferred from Columbia, and Zach Hankins, who transfered from Ferris State, make up the other two transfers, and the latter will likely start at guard on Tuesday.
Other than Welage, Xavier’s primary source of offense is Quentin Goodin, who missed the game against IUPUI with a shoulder injury but is expected to play against Wisconsin. Goodin is one of just two returning starters for Xavier this season, and he is expected to improve on his 9 PPG output from last season. As a rising Junior, he’ll be the team’s primary distributor. Naji Marshall, a forward, is the other returning starter, and is likely to be a supplementary piece on offense.
A prominent narrative for this game will be the first test for new Xavier coach Travis Steele. Chris Mack, who won Big East Coach of the Year with Xavier in 2018, left to take the open position at Louisville in the offseason. Steele, who was Mack’s understudy for 10 years, now has the opportunity to make a name for himself. Part of his job will be to scheme open looks for his three point shooters, as Xavier shot just 9-29 from beyond the arc against IUPUI. Should Xavier struggle to that magnitude against the Badgers, Greg Gard will have to feel good about his chances.
Wisconsin’s key to the game starts with Ethan Happ. Coppin State’s game plan was to take away Happ’s ability to score, and he responded with a game high 12 assists. If Happ can play the role of facilitator as effectively as he plays the role of primary scorer, Wisconsin will be a very tough team to stop defensively on Tuesday. The supplementary scorers, including D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, and Khalil Iverson, will have to step up if Xavier is to double team Ethan Happ as expected. Should they shoot efficiently however, Greg Gard and the Badgers should leave Cincinnati at 2-0.
Prediction: Wisconsin 79, Xavier 72