Well, that was fun. Wisconsin beat Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday pretty handily, and looked like they were firing on all cylinders. Defensively, excluding Caris LeVert's explosion, the team held the Wolverines to a 1-10 shooting performance from three. Offensively, Frank Kaminsky played out of his mind, logging 25 points and 11 rebounds (it's not 43 points, but I'll take it).
At the week's end, Wisconsin will travel to Iowa for the biggest game of their season. Both teams are in the top 16 teams in the country, and this game will have major ripple effects on both team's seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Let's look at what we know about Wisconsin as they ride this 4 game winning streak into Iowa City.
Nigel Hayes has helped more than himself.
Thankfully, I never get tired of saying this: Nigel Hayes rules. He earned his 4th Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor this past week, and is putting a serious dent in Noah Vonleh's campaign for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. His growth has a player cannot be overstated, not only for his own improvement, but for the improvement of the rest of the front court.
Hayes' mid-range game is his specialty. It's become a shot that he knocks down with preposterous regularity. Because of that, when Hayes is on the floor, the Badgers will look to him to score. Even though he only plays 44.9% of the team's minutes, he leads the team in Percentage of Possession at 25.4%. That's pretty crazy that he has become the focal point of the team's offense in such small doses. But if you watch Wisconsin play, they try to get him the ball on the low block when he's in. Earlier in the year, he wasn't as efficient with the ball as he is now. There were times where the offense would swing him the ball, but he struggled to make an effective decision with the ball. Now, his passing is off-the-charts for a freshman big, especially when passing out of double-teams.
Defensively, his presence has made the defense force way more turnovers than they did earlier. Cumulatively, Wisconsin comes in at a whopping 293rd place in Steals per Game at 5.04, tied with powerhouses like Houston Baptist (sup Bun B) and Evansville. They're not much better at Blocks per Game, landing at 199th place with 3.38 per game. But during their 4 game winning streak, Wisconsin forced an average of 9.75 turnovers a game. You can partially credit that unforeseen turnover explosion to Nigel Hayes' active hands as he breaks up passes and forces opposing players into bad decisions.
It's not ludicrous to suggest that Hayes' emergence has lit a fire underneath Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. For Frank, we know how he responded - his performance against Michigan demonstrated that quite clearly. But for Dekker, things get a little murky. If you look at the Ohio State game, Dekker played 19 minutes and Hayes played 29 minutes. For Dekker, this is supposed to be his team. That couldn't have felt good to play less than half of the game against one of your biggest rivals at home.
During the winning streak, Dekker displayed a fire that was absent earlier in the year. He's now attacking the basket with reckless abandon, and finishing through contact. You could see it during the Minnesota game, and was especially clear against Michigan. Here's a perfect example:
Watch him not shy away from the contact and finish extra strong at the hoop. That's the Dekker that we know and love. That's the Dekker that will take Wisconsin on a run this March.
The backcourt is... hanging in there.
Against Minnesota, Ben Brust broke out of his slump! Huzzah! But he hopped right back into a new one against Michigan with a 1-7 performance from behind the arc. Welp. That could be a problem. They need his shooting to beat good teams, particularly Iowa. Brust had 19 points in Wisconsin's win against Iowa earlier in the season. They'll need a performance similar to that to pick up a win on the road. This time, it's unlikely Fran McCaffery won't have a freak out. But with Fran, you never know.
Bo Ryan said this after Wisconsin's victory over Michigan on Sunday:
"I told Trae that it was the best 1-for-6 performance I've ever seen" - Ryan on Jackson's 6 assist, 0 turnover day for #Badgers— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) February 16, 2014
I'm inclined to agree with you, Bo. Under the steady hand of Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin only turned the ball over twice against Michigan. That's something to celebrate. Jackson's season has been up-and-down, but during the win streak, he's played excellent. He's not putting up gaudy stats, he's simply playing to his limits, and providing solid ball control. Against Illinois, he turned the ball over once. While he did turn it over 5 times against Michigan State, his game winner makes me want to forgive him. And against both Minnesota and Michigan? A grand total of a one turnover.
That's all Trae needs to do. Keep it simple, make sharp passes, and only force it when you have to. Side-note: it's hilarious when teams forget that he's left-handed. Because he relies on that left hand pretty damn hard. Since it's so easy to forget, I'm hopeful that his opponents in the NCAA Tournament will forget, and give him the left side just off pure instinct. If that happens, hoo boy.
Their schedule seems easy, but isn't.
We know Iowa will be a challenge. For some reason, Indiana scares the heck out of me next Tuesday. I know how messy they are, but there's still tons of talent on that squad. They end their season with road games against Penn State and Nebrasketball, and I would not be surprised if they drop one of those. The bottom of the Big Ten is insanely good, as Michigan State found out on Sunday. Don't be surprised if Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill take Wisconsin to school. And don't you dare sleep on Nebrasketball. It's so silly that you could say Nebraska has an arguably better shot of making the tournament this year than Indiana. Lol.
So there you have it. We've seen some inspiring play lately from the Badgers, both offensively and defensively. The Iowa game will be a measuring stick for how far this team can go. They'll have a whole week to rest and think and over-think about their opponent. But they'll be ready for that game, and will be ready for March.