The non-conference schedule for Wisconsin concluded Saturday afternoon with an 80-43 win over Prairie View A&M and Wisconsin surprisingly enters conference play unbeaten. After navigating a formidable schedule, here are a few key takeaways from the Badgers' young season:
The Three Guard Lineup Works
Every year there is valid cause for concern with the latest edition of a Wisconsin Badgers squad, and this year that concern stemmed from the graduation of its entire starting frontcourt. Due to its roster makeup, Wisconsin would either need to put blind faith in its freshmen forwards or play "small ball" and start the best players available on a guard-heavy team. The Badgers chose the latter, inserting former point guard Josh Gasser back into the starting lineup as a small forward after rehabilitating a torn ACL the year prior, moving natural small forward Sam Dekker to more of a stretch-four role, and promoting center Frank Kaminsky. This has worked for a number of reasons. For starters, "small ball" is misleading in this case because Wisconsin's effective height this year is actually better. Kaminsky and Dekker are taller than their predecessor, and though Gasser is shorter he plays bigger, rebounding and defending well for his size. So even though the team seems more guard-oriented, in reality it managed to add a little length while also upgrading its athleticism. In addition, the new starters are simply better athletes, and in the case of Sam Dekker, a noticeably better overall player:
In hindsight, Dekker probably deserved some of the minutes Evans ate last season. With Dekker in for Evans you give up a little on defense in return for an embarrassment of riches on offense. Evans regressed on offense in his final season and as a result he became too inefficient to get the minutes he did. Most notably his free throw percentage dropped an inexplicable 30% from the season before, and there's nothing more frustrating than the guy that leads the team in free throw attempts only making 42% of them. Normally enough of a threat from deep to keep teams honest, by the end of January Evans' three-point percentage dropped to 8% and he only attempted one for the rest of the season. Dekker is a mild upgrade at the line and a massive one from the floor, shooting much better and displaying an ability to create offense that Evans only came close to posting up on the block. Wisconsin was actually a pretty efficient team last year outside of Evans, but when a guy that can't shoot uses up over a quarter of your team's possessions while he's on the floor it really limits what can be done. Insert a productive and efficient player in his place and the results are evident so far.
Health Matters More To Wisconsin Than Any Other Contender
The secret is out by now, but it bears repeating that there is not one major conference contender that relies on its starters more than Wisconsin. Almost 80% of Wisconsin's minutes are allotted to its starting five, ~10% more than fellow Big Ten contenders Michigan State and Ohio State and over 20% more than dark horse Iowa. In addition, Wisconsin has a strict 8-man rotation during quality minutes, compared to 9- or 10-man rotations at Iowa, MSU, and OSU. If the Badgers run into foul trouble or pick up an injury, particularly in the frontcourt, they're forced to turn to unproven and/or unfit role players and hope for the best.
This scenario reared its ugly head in Wisconsin's annual matchup against Marquette. With 5 minutes left in the half, starters Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky as well as reserve forward Nigel Hayes had all picked up two fouls. Wisconsin was forced to play mop-up center Evan Anderson, who quickly proceeded to commit three fouls himself. Bo Ryan replaced Anderson with forward Zach Bohannon and the Badgers finished out the half with two guards and three small forward/stretch-fours. An injury to any player would make what has been a rare occurrence so far a necessity to an already small rotation. The transfer of Jared Uthoff and the lack of development from Anderson have left the frontcourt dangerously thin, though talented.
Bronson Koenig Is Going To Be A Star
Probably not a very bold statement for a guy that received offers from Kansas, North Carolina, and Duke as a high school recruit, but Koenig has the potential to be a special player. With the ball in his hands he combines the fluidity of Trevon Hughes with the decision-making of Jordan Taylor. No disrespect to Traevon Jackson, but Koenig is the purest point guard on the roster and is a prototype for pass-first point guards. He controls the tempo of the offense, makes good decisions with the ball, handles the ball very well, and at 6'3" he has nice size for his skill set.
To get an idea of Koenig's potential, let's compare his numbers to the early years of Wisconsin's two best point guards of the Bo Ryan era: Second Team All-Americans Jordan Taylor and Devin Harris. (Note: Unfortunately KenPom.com wasn't up and running until 2002-2003, so Devin Harris' freshman season statistics are not available and were replaced by his sophomore campaign. If it went back further I would have loved to add Mike Kelley to the table as well.)
Since these are Harris' sophomore numbers it might be good to use Taylor as a comparison and Harris as a barometer for the future. However, it is promising that Koenig's offensive rating is already on par with Harris and remarkably better than where Jordan Taylor was at this point. The knock on Taylor back then happens to be a main strength of Koenig now: efficient and productive shooting. Taylor struggled to put the ball in the basket in an otherwise respectable debut season. To date, this isn't a concern with Koenig. He picks his spots and he's reliable when he finds himself open.
Looking ahead, the next step in his game is improving on his aggression around the ball and near the basket. When compared to Devin Harris, you can see where there is for improvement and how the numbers reflect the players' style. Harris excelled at driving to the rim and drawing contact, as indicated by his superior free throw rate and fouls drawn. Koenig prefers to control the offense from the outside, and as a result he doesn't see the free throw line (his first attempts came this past weekend against Prairie View A&M, his 11th game). I don't expect him to ever be Devin Harris in this regard, but it would be a nice tool to add to his game since his passing and basketball IQ are already advanced. Harris also rebounded at a level typical of the Wisconsin guards of late, and though Koenig is a step below that standard right now he is right where Jordan Taylor was, and Taylor grew to be a better rebounder over time.
All in all, the non-conference season was a smashing success for Wisconsin, and with a favorable schedule and a healthy squad they look to be a contender for a Big Ten Championship once again.
- Post Game: Shields Shrinks in Huskers' Road Loss
- Preview: Michigan v. Holy Cross - How Much Will Wolverines Miss McGary?
- Preview: Michigan State vs. New Orleans - Will Denzel Valentine Be A Factor Again?
- Friday Night Recap: Big Ten's 17 Game Winning Streak Comes To A Close
- Preview: UIC vs. Illinois - Can Tracy Abrams Stay Hot?