Wisconsin slipped by Pittsburgh on Friday night for Greg Gard's first NCAA Tournament victory. The final score, 47-43, indicates exactly what you might assume. Neither team lit the world on fire offensively. Partly, the defense was good, but partly, neither team found an offensive flow, nor did they shoot the ball well. Even still, for Wisconsin, a win is a win, and we did learn a few things.
1. For long stretches, Wisconsin falls into really bad funks on offense.
The Badgers shot 25 percent in the first half and scored just 16 points. They couldn't get easy baskets, and oftentimes were forced to take a contested deep jumper, or drive into heavy traffic with little time left on the shot clock.
At times, they didn't space the floor effectively, and their movement stagnated. Wisconsin didn't generate many easy shots, but even those weren't falling in the first half.
Early in the season, Wisconsin struggled exactly this way. The offense wasn't free-flowing, and often relied on late shot clock magic to generate offense. Then, Gard seemed to solve the offensive puzzle, and the Badgers were scoring with more efficiency and without a ton of effort. Both against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament and last night against Pittsburgh, it looked like those early season struggles returned.
Pittsburgh's defense deserves some credit (or blame depending on which side you fall); the Panthers extended their perimeter defense and allowed no easy passes. However, Wisconsin tried to generate offense too late in the shot clock, and they simply didn't have the playmakers to do so.
2. Apparently, a team can score 16 points in a half and still win.
It helped that the team's opponent only scored 22 points in that very same half. Wisconsin's defense played tremendously well too, and after giving up dribble penetration. Pittsburgh, much like the Badgers, is not an offensive juggernaut, but the Wisconsin defense suffocated the Panthers at times.
The Badgers also hit the offensive glass (12 in the game), and cashed in those opportunities. (The Badgers had 18 second chance points, which may not sound like much, but it amounted to 38 percent of the team's total offense.)
And, although Wisconsin didn't shoot the ball particularly well, they didn't turn it over (six for the game). Few turnovers and second chance points mitigated some of the offensive struggles.
3. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig must play better.
Ethan Happ (15 points, nine rebounds) and Vitto Brown (11 points, 3-of-5 from three) brought huge contributions. Happ was predictably steady, and finished a big three-point play late. Brown hit two huge threes in the second half.
However, Wisconsin's stars didn't play well (now been two games in a row). Hayes finished 3-for-17 from the field. At times, he forced offense; other times he missed open threes (0-for-6 from deep). Hayes still got to the line, and made his freethrows, which helped him battle a tough night. (Hayes scored 12 points.)
Koenig has been more of an enigma this season. He hit a huge game-winning shot against VCU and scattered great moments all year. But, against Pittsburght, he was 1-for-8 (and 3-for-12 against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament).
It's not a groundbreaking observation to note that Wisconsin's two best players need to play better for them to move forward in the NCAA Tournament. But,it's true; Wisconsin needs them as playmakers, shotmakers and leaders. Lately, they've both struggled.