Throughout the first month of the season, Wisconsin seemed lost. Maybe it was the stunning home loss to Western Illinois, the disappointing loss to Georgetown in New York, or the embarrassing beatdown at Oklahoma. Bo Ryan's bright red face radiated more than ever, and his lack of senior leadership proved costly at the onset. But over the last week, Wisconsin seems to be turning a corner. A huge win at #14 Syracuse followed by a convincing home win against Temple proved that the Badgers seemed to right the ship. We break down how this past week could prove as a jumping off point for the rest of the non-conference season and provide potential momentum leading into Big Ten play.
On Wednesday, few gave the Badgers a chance. Syracuse had just run through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, led by the brilliant start of Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney and the surprise emergence of freshmen Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson. But depth has been Syracuse's issue all season, as I touched on last week. Starter DaJuan Coleman played 5 minutes, Kaleb Joseph played 14, and the Orange essentially played the aforementioned four plus Tyler Roberson for the entire game. They wore down, perhaps from the long Bahamas trip, and the Badgers eked out a much-needed overtime victory 66-58 in Syracuse.
Looking at the Badgers, its tough to talk about them without mentioning their own depth problems. Four of the five starters played over 40 minutes, and the fifth starter, Vitto Brown, played 39. Bo Ryan clearly had trust issues with the bench in this game, and stuck with his proven guys. Regardless of the non-existent bench (1 point, 3 rebounds in 16 total minutes), the frontcourt had its most complete and dominant performance of the entire season.
The three-headed monster of Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes and Brown finished with 47 points and 35 rebounds, while the entire Syracuse team finished with 25 total. Happ was especially dominant, going for 18 points and 15 rebounds along with 2 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks. As the only freshmen in the lineup, Happ was the only completely unknown entity. His play doesn't come as a complete surprise, but a freshman putting up such gaudy numbers on the road is an enormous plus for Wisconsin.
Nigel Hayes continued his steady play, going for 15 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. His most disappointing stat continues to be the number of 3-pointers he attempts, as Hayes shot only 1-5 against the Orange. At 6'8, 250, Hayes should be using his strength to bully smaller forwards on the block instead of settling for 3-pointers, and he's shooting a brutal 27% on the year.
The Badgers scored one of the best road wins of the early season, and proved their enormous frontcourt can lead them to a victory. They only shot 41%, but grabbing 51 rebounds, including at least 6 from every starter, shows that Bo Ryan's team using a more traditional small and power forward will cause matchup nightmares in the frontcourt every night.
While Wednesday's overtime thriller proved the Badgers could steal a victory, Saturday's home victory showed Badger fans their team could play methodical, solid basketball for 40 minutes against a decent opponent at home. Wisconsin led for the final 33 minutes, jumping out to an 11-point halftime lead before beating Temple 76-60. The focus on Wednesday night was all about the starters, while Saturday allowed the bench guys to find their rhythm.
Brown and Happ struggled with foul trouble all game, so freshman reserve Charlie Thomas stepped up in a major way. Thomas finished with 9 points and 6 boards in 25 minutes, including his second 3-pointer of the season. Thomas seemed comfortable in the offense, stayed out of foul trouble and provided the Badgers with another option for extended minutes in the frontcourt.
Thomas' play has been decent all season, but the major surprise for Badger fans was the play of Alex Illikainen. Bo Ryan has played essentially seven players all season, and Illikainen has been in and out of the rotation as the eighth man behind Khalil Iverson and Thomas off the bench. Saturday gave Ryan more confidence in Illikainen, as the freshman finished with 6 points and an assist in 9 minutes. It was only 9 minutes, but stealing these minutes from him in an important conference game down the road could bide enough time if one of the Badgers' starting bigs get into foul trouble. Illikainen has only played 42 minutes in Wisconsin's 9 games this season, but his development could be a big storyline for the Badgers.
Overall, Wisconsin sits at 6-3 after a rough start to the season. This week, a pair of instate rivals venture to the Kohl Center. Milwaukee makes the short drive Wednesday night, a team led by forward Matt Tiby who nearly knocked off a very good Notre Dame team in South Bend. The Panthers figure to be one of the better teams in the Horizon league, and provide Wisconsin with a very solid non-conference opponent in mid-December.
On Saturday, Marquette comes to Madison in desperate need of a big win. The Golden Eagles sit at 6-2, but have losses to mid-major Belmont and an embarrassing loss at home to fellow Big Ten participant Iowa by 28 points. Their best win of the season comes against LSU and #1 recruit Ben Simmons, but with the Tigers reeling, this victory might not mean much come March.
Marquette relies on top-10 recruit Henry Ellenson to do their heavy lifting, as the freshman averages 16 points and 9 rebounds per game. Indiana transfer Luke Fischer joins him in the frontcourt as their second leading scorer, providing the Badgers with an extremely tough test on the boards. If the Badgers can limit Ellenson and Fischer, they should be able to beat Marquette for another solid, resume-boosting win to end the week.