It hasn't always been pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers have come out hot out of the gate, giving Bo Ryan his best start to the season as Wisconsin's head coach. The explosion of Frank Kaminsky, and the continued strong play of Sam Dekker with a deep backcourt have been very exciting for Badger fans, as they have already jumped into the AP top 10. They will represent the Big Ten against the Virginia Cavaliers (7-1) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday. This will be one of Wisconsin's toughest tests yet, as it is only their second true away game of the season, the first being a narrow three point victory over UW-Green Bay.
Wisconsin will look to avenge a 60-54 home loss last season, in which the Cavaliers rode behind 22 points from Joe Harris, while Wisconsin's shooters went cold and were stifled by Virginia's defense. This year, the game should be much more exciting, as both teams have advanced offensively.
Virginia continues to be a strong opponent, playing solid fundamental defense and controlling the tempo, much like the traditional Wisconsin scheme. Their sole loss of the season was by only three points in an incredibly close game against VCU. The team is led by senior guard Joe Harris, who is shooting over 60 percent from the field including 55 percent from behind the line. Sophomores Anthony Gill and Malcom Brogdon have burst onto the scene, both averaging over 10 points per game, providing the team with new scoring threats that were not present last season.
Both teams look similar on paper, but their keys to success are very different. Wisconsin relies on consistent outside shooting, by all five of their starters, to open up the interior, whereas Virginia's game is essentially the opposite. They will try to take advantage of a small Wisconsin lineup to establish an inside presence and win the rebound battle. If the Badgers are able to make their perimeter shots and out-rebound Virginia, they will have an excellent shot of winning this game.
Frank Kaminsky will face 6'11" Mike Tobey down low, so don't expect him to dominate inside. Frank will have to use his quickness to get open looks and open up lanes for other players to get to the rim. Defensively, however, Kaminsky should have an advantage. Tobey is used to having a height advantage over defenders, and Kaminsky will look to continue his streak of blocks, as he is averaging 2.0 per game. If Virginia is able to dominate the interior battle through Tobey, they will be given a significant advantage.
The battle between skill players Sam Dekker and Harris should be fun to watch. They are very similar in terms of size and skill, and both play similar roles on offense, regardless of their position. Dekker will need to stay attached to Harris defensively, to avoid giving him open looks.
Nigel Hayes will likely play a significant role in this game, to counter the Cavalier's frontcourt depth. Tobey, Gill, and Akil Mitchell present a consistent threat inside, with Darion Atkins getting significant time as well. Bo Ryan will certainly have to employ some 2 guard sets, and Hayes will be the first one called on in this case. Badger fans will just hope that he doesn't get fouled in a close game at the end, as he is shooting under 50 percent from the line so far this season.
This game, like so many close games for Wisconsin, will likely come down to their 3-point shooting success. If the Badgers come out cold, they will likely see many one-and-done situations in which they miss a 3 and lose the rebound inside. All five players on the floor for Wisconsin will have to commit to getting rebounds both offensively and defensively, as Virginia allows the 2nd least amount of opposing offensive rebounds in the country.
Virginia will look to pound the ball inside on Wisconsin's relatively undersized and inexperienced forwards. If they are able to do so, they will open everything up for Joe Harris and the rest of the team. Players like Kaminsky and Dekker will have to be cautious to avoid foul trouble, because if one of them goes out, the Cavaliers will have a huge advantage.
Prediction: Wisconsin 64 Virginia 61. Either way, this is going to be a great game. I think that Wisconsin's skill will prove too much for Virginia's defenders, as they struggle to defend against 5 starters who can score from anywhere on the court. Frank Kaminsky will continue to prove his own as an interior defender, and the entire team will hound for rebounds, frustrating the Cavaliers. This is probably the toughest matchup for each team so far this season, and the winner will be feeling very good about themselves as we inch closer to conference play.