After a November 23rd loss to North Carolina in Maui, Wisconsin’s record dropped to 4-2. The Badgers trailed 8-0 nothing to start that game and never really threatened the Tar Heels. Wisconsin left Hawaii with a few questions, perhaps mostly surrounding the superstars Nigel Hayes (3-for-11, eight points vs. UNC) and Bronson Koenig (1-for-13, two points vs. UNC).
Losing to North Carolina wasn’t some seminal moment, though. Greg Gard didn’t overreact. The program was on its third game of the week and for anyone who watched the North Carolina-Kentucky game on Saturday, the Tar Heels are clearly one of the top teams in the country.
Since Maui the Badgers haven’t lost and now are riding a six game winning streak into the final non-conference game of the season vs. Florida A&M. Let’s take a look at this latest six game stretch to see if we can glean any encouraging themes as Big Ten play resumes.
A six-game winning streak is a six-game winning streak, but they’re not all created equal. After a tough stretch of travel and road games, the Badgers had two true home games in the first six and during the winning streak, the Badgers have played all but one at the Kohl Center.
Certainly, the schedule eased a bit, giving the team a chance to breath. Wisconsin only played one ranked opponent (Syracuse, 22nd at the time) and only one team currently in the top-100 RPI (Marquette). However, the Badgers held a plus-23 point differential during their current winning streak.
Often, a teams schedule easing up can make a difference and clearly it came at a good time for the Badgers.
Nigel Hayes, Big Ten Player of the Year Candidate
I hate to harp on Nigel. But he’s Wisconsin’s best player and really the guy who’ll, along with Bronson Koenig, determine the height of their ceiling. The bench matters, and so do the other role players surrounding them, but recent history suggests it’s the upper-echelon talent that carries the day.
With that being said, Hayes has been pretty spectacular over the last six games. During the streak he has scored in double-figure five times (averaging 17.6 PPG), including two 20-point games. More importantly, his offensive efficiency has been good. He’s scoring 17.6 points on just over 10 shots a game. Hayes is actually 35-for-61, 57 percent, from the floor during the winning streak.
Perhaps even more importantly, his three-point attempts are down. Hayes didn’t attempt a shot from deep in three of the last six games (Prairie View A&M, Syracuse and Idaho State) and never took more than two in any game. Against Syracuse, in fact, the only game where Hayes didn’t score in double-figures, he displayed his full array of skills, nearly recording a triple-double (nine points, 10 assists, 11 rebounds).
Better competition will test him, but Hayes has found his rhythm. It’s not so much about his scoring, but about nourishing his efficiency and all-around game.
Wisconsin has other statistics that look good during the winning streak (rebounding, bench points, defense, etc.), but turnovers have been a hallmark of this program. Early on covering the first six games the Badgers averaged nearly 14 turnovers a game, including 13 in a loss to Creighton and a season high 18 against Tennessee.
During the winning streak, the Badgers are averaging just over nine turnovers a game. Wisconsin’s hung its hat on not beating itself, for many years and after some early season kinks, the Badgers are returning to that brand of basketball.
Wisconsin will likely push its winning streak up to seven games if they can knock off Florida A&M on their home floor. That being said, their final non-conference game falls at a weird time school-wise. The Kohl Center will be packed, but it’s always a weird atmosphere post-finals, pre-holiday break, with students off of campus and many people focusing on the upcoming holidays instead.
Competition is a factor, for sure. The schedule got easier opponent-wise and travel-wise. Either way, Wisconsin won the games it was supposed to. It’s now a matter of carrying the momentum forward into Big Ten play.