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What We Learned: Wisconsin 77, Syracuse 60

The Badgers are beginning to gel and they can play with anyone in the country.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers had high expectations heading into this season and, in this destruction of Syracuse, we saw why on Tuesday night.

The three major returning pieces from last year’s Sweet 16 appearance all played great basketball in this game, showing that Wisconsin can hurt people in many ways. Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig could all challenge for the Big Ten Player of the Year Award, and not many teams can say that three of their guys could be their conference’s best player.

That kind of star power is rare for the hard-nosed Badgers, or for any college basketball team (disregarding freshmen). But these three have talents that allow them to play together very well, and we saw all three players reap the benefits of their chemistry in a statement win.

But this game was not all about the Badgers’ Big Three, there were other storylines, too. Let’s dig into them.

1. Greg Gard is a Legitimate Top-Tier Coach

The daunted 2-3 zone defense that is played by Jim Boehim’s Syracuse squad has smothered offenses for years and made them a tough out every single night. It is one thing to squeak by the Orange, but it is another to take them to the woodshed.

Greg Gard’s game plan for attacking the Syracuse zone was masterful. The use of Hayes as the primary distributor and allowing Koenig to bury outside shots off the ball was something that the Cuse did not have an answer for.

Putting the ball in Hayes’ hands also isolated Happ down low, and allowed him to absolutely feast. It is not easy to manage three great basketball players and allow them all to thrive in a single game, but Gard drew up a plan that allowed all three guys to show off their skill sets.

Not only was this the perfect way to crack the 2-3 zone, this type of play could be best for the Badgers moving forward. Allowing Koenig and Happ to be the top two scoring options, on the inside and outside, takes advantage of Hayes’ play-making ability.

At all team also was very disciplined on defense, smothering the Orange. He clearly out-coached one of the best coaches in college basketball history in this game.

If Gard can continue to manage his stars like this, the Badgers could have another Final Four run in them.

2. Nigel Hayes at Point Forward is Very Dangerous

Hayes was considered by many to be the front-runner for the Big Ten Player of the Year award headed into this season.

While he had gotten off to a slow start to the season, being the third-leading scorer on the team and shooting only 41% from the field, his all-around skill set shined in this game.

Hayes only tallied 9 points, but grabbed 11 boards and dished out 10 assists in a coming out party against a good team. Hayes’ passing ability opened up great looks for Koenig, who had 20 points and knocked down 6-9 from deep, and Happ, who exploded for 24 points and 13 rebounds.

This Badgers offense had struggled to incorporate all three players thus far, but Hayes’ play-making appears to be the key. Even though he had another pedestrian scoring night, Hayes’ impact was monstrous.

If this can be kept up, look out. If Hayes can do this AND knock down more shots, then hide your families because the Badgers are one of the best teams in the country, then.

3. The Bench Unit is Still Unsteady

As good as Wisconsin looked tonight, there were some concerns regarding their bench.

The bench won’t need to contribute much when Hayes, Koenig, and Happ have nights like they did tonight, but down the stretch they will need to give more.

The Badgers only tallied six bench points, all of which came from the hand of D’Mitrik Trice, brother of former Michigan State guard Travis Trice.

Trice has given very solid minutes so far this year, averaging 5.6 points in only 15.9 minutes per game. His perimeter shooting allows him to play with any lineup combination moving forward.

The key to this bench could be sophomore guard Khalil Iverson. Iverson did not contribute much in only five minutes in this game, but has shown great flashes this year. He’s posted 5.3 points and 4.0 boards per game in limited minutes and looked great in scoring 10 points against Georgetown last week.

If Trice and Iverson can provide some punch off of the bench to support the stars, then the Badgers are the best team in the Big Ten.

Overall

The Badgers looked scary good tonight. They held a top-25 team to 38% shooting from the floor and looked like a well-oiled machine on offense.

Wisconsin showed almost every component needed on a championship contending squad. They had great scoring from Koenig and Happ, great play-making from Hayes, they hit the boards hard, defended very well, and have a great coach.

They just need some bench guys to step up. If that can happen, the sky is the limit. And if Hayes, Koenig, and Happ keep this up, then the bench might not matter much at all.

Wisconsin looked like on of the 10 best teams in college basketball on Tuesday night. Let’s see if they can keep it up.