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Wisconsin Badger’s big three will be key down the stretch

Wisconsin will go where its three leaders take them.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve said before, Wisconsin’s ceiling this year will be determined by their big three: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ. The bench and remaining starters have given Greg Gard solid minutes, but the firepower (scoring/playmaking) largely comes from these three guys.

Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown have had their moments and count me among those who wish Showalter would be even more aggressive on offense. D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson give a punch off the bench and are also intriguing young prospects.

That being said, the scoring and play making load falls on three sets of shoulders. Hayes, Happ and Koenig account for 55 percent of the scoring so far this year, which is actually down a tick from last year (60 percent). Their minutes and usage are down slightly but their efficiency (from a shooting percentage perspective) is much improved over a year ago. Let’s get into each more specifically below.

Bronson Koenig

Over the last two games Koenig’s almost been lying in wait. It’s not like Michigan or Minnesota didn’t account for him, but he daggered both schools.

Against Michigan, Koenig awoke in the second half scoring 13 points. His two late threes really lifted Wisconsin during a tough offensive night. Then, on Saturday, Koenig buried the go-ahead three in overtime to drop Minnesota. In fact, Koenig actually hit two huge threes in OT. Koenig now has a track record now of taking and making big shots, with the second was great play design and execution out of a timeout.

Koenig’s playing five fewer minutes a night, but his shooting percentages are up (44 percent on field goals, 41 percent from three and 87 percent from the line). He hasn’t forced action, but rises to the occasion when the moment demands it.

Nigel Hayes

Hayes too has settled into a great role. Early in the season he had a couple three-happy games, much in line with those of last season. Now he’s more judicious about taking shots beyond the arc and overall he’s been much more efficient while playing fewer minutes.

Hayes is playing six less minutes a night and taking two less shots, but making about the same number. More importantly, his shooting percentage has rebounded nearly to his sophomore year.

Hayes’ play making ability is an important element of Wisconsin’s offense. He’s a pretty underrated passer and decision maker with the ball, which helps when the Badger offense clogs.

Ethan Happ

Happ won co-Big Ten Player of the Week after his performances versus Michigan and at Minnesota. While struggling with fouls against Michigan, Happ destroyed the Gophers. He scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in what became his eighth double-double of the year.

There’s a theme here. Happ is also playing fewer minutes (about two less so not too much), but he’s producing more. His shooting percentage is up significantly (to 60 percent), and his rebounds are up. And in games when the Badgers really need him, he’s carried the load offensively at times.

Last season he struggled with fouls, while this season Happ has defended better (without fouling) and is among the league leaders in steals. Happ was Wisconsin’s breakout star a year ago and he’s out performed last years performance so far.

Overall

I’m not sure if it’s trusting the supporting cast more, Gard settling into rotations or Hayes, Happ and Koenig becoming more comfortable with their roles, but all three are better this year than last. Admittedly, last year was pretty weird with the coaching change and all, though.

Last week was a great step forward in Wisconsin’s quest for a Big Ten title (especially picking up a tough road win in Minnesota). Hayes, Happ and Koenig played big roles in last week’s success and they’ll continue to do so going forward.