It’s a bit unfair to compare this year’s Badgers to last year’s Badgers. The circumstances were different, coming off back-to-back Final Fours. Wisconsin stumbled a bit in the non-conference last year, which culminated in Bo Ryan’s abrupt retirement.
The ninth-ranked Badgers look poised to avoid any of those early trip ups. Things started off on the wrong foot last year, with Wisconsin losing their season opener to Western Illinois 69-67 last year, in Madison no less.
The 2016-’17 Badgers appeared focused. Although Central Arkansas hung around a bit early, Wisconsin led wire-to-wire. In fact, Central Arkansas was within two (19-17) with just over seven minutes left in the first half. That’s as close as they’d ever get.
Let’s take a look at the numbers, and although just one game, the Badgers are off to a better start.
No Wisconsin player surpassed 24 minutes played in the game. It wasn’t necessary obviously, Wisconsin led 34-22 at halftime and outscored the Bears by 20 (45-25) in the second half.
Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes (each 24 minutes) led 10 guys who played double figure minutes. A far cry from last season’s opener when Hayes and Zak Showalter played all 40 minutes and Koenig logged 37 minutes.
More importantly it gave the bench an opportunity, which scored 31 in the game. D’Mitrik Trice scored eight points in 13 minutes in his freshman debut and looks like he’ll be a solid bench contributor. Charlie Thomas even contributed seven points off the bench, all from the free throw line.
Second Half Dominance
Although Wisconsin held a double-digit lead after the first 20 minutes, it was in the second half when it became a complete blowout. The Badgers shot 7-for-15 from three and 18-for-21 from the line in the second half. In fact, Wisconsin started the second half on a 14-3 run and the Bears were never within 15 after that.
Central Arkansas was completely over-matched and Wisconsin got nearly any shot it wanted. It dictated pace and surgically dismantled the Bear defense. It was the latter Wisconsin team of last year just taken up a notch.
Koenig and Hayes
The Badgers will be far deeper this season, and really, they were deep as the season progressed last year. But from the jump, Koenig and Hayes can trust the supporting cast; they know what to expect from guys like Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter.
Rather than force action, particularly in the second half, both Hayes and Koenig were able to play off Happ in the post and move to open spaces without the ball. Hayes scored 14 points (5-10 FG, 2-6 3FG), four rebounds and five assists in just the 24 minutes he was on the floor. His counterpart, Koenig, scored a game-high 16 points (6-12 FG, 4-10 3FG). Showalter was the only other Badger in double-figures with 10 points.
Well, it’s a better start to the season than last year (although it’s only one game). With a blowout it’s tough to determine the true rotation that’ll settle. It’s unlikely Greg Gard has a 10-man rotation as the season progresses, but the depth is there.
We ought to learn more about Wisconsin tonight when they play 22nd-ranked Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska as a part of the Gavitt Tip-off Games. It’ll be a good test before heading to Hawaii next week for the Maui Invitational, where the competition spikes considerably.
So far, though, Wisconsin looks sharp and primed for a fast start.