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What We Learned: Xavier Musketeers 80, Wisconsin Badgers 70

BTP takes a look at the takeaways from Wisconsin’s loss to Xavier on Thursday night.

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

The Xavier Musketeers gave the Big East a 4-3 advantage over the Big Ten in the 2017 Gavitt Tipoff Games by picking up a hard-fought 80-70 win over the Wisconsin Badgers on Thursday night.

Though No. 15 Xavier was able to pick up a double-digit win over the Badgers, neither team was able to build a comfortable lead for the majority of the game. Wisconsin led 66-64 with under 2:30 remaining but failed to execute in the closing minutes and missed its final seven shots from that point on.

A major element factoring into the win for the Musketeers was Trevon Bluiett’s second-half resurgence. The game was knotted up at 34 at the end of the first half, which Greg Gard had to at least be somewhat pleased about given the talent he was matched up against. Shutting Bluiett down during the opening 20 minutes was essentially why Xavier couldn’t take control early in the game.

Bluiett missed all four of his attempts from the floor in the first half and managed to score only four points, while turning the ball over four times.

If the Badgers could have handled Bluiett in the second half like they did in the first, they may have coasted to a pretty comfortable win. Bluiett went 6-9 from the floor in the second half, including 3-6 from three. The guard finished with 25 points, 21 of which were in the second half, to go along with 9 rebounds. Bluiett also didn’t commit any turnovers in the second half.

We really learned a lot about this young Wisconsin team tonight. Parts of the Badgers’ seemingly unknown identity were revealed against the Musketeers. Let’s get into the details.

What We Learned

1. Brevin Pritzl Is Here To Stay.

With the senior class Wisconsin featured last season, it came as no surprise that redshirt sophomore Brevin Pritzl hardly played. Pritzl averaged only 8.1 minutes per game last season and only played 20+ minutes on two occasions.

Since Pritzl didn’t gain very much in-game experience last season, it was hard to predict when and if the 6-3 guard would be a factor this season. The good news for the Badgers is it didn’t take Pritzl very much time at all to become a valuable asset this season.

In 16 minutes of action against Xavier, Pritzl scored 13 points on 5-9 shooting, including 3-5 from beyond the arc. Two of those made threes were crucial momentum shifters for Wisconsin as well. The first came with 9:53 remaining in the game to cut Xavier’s lead to four. And on the ensuing possession Pritzl knocked down another three to lift the home fans in attendance to their feet.

Pritzl has looked promising in each of the Badgers’ three games so far this season. The guard scored a career-high 17 points in Wisconsin’s season-opener against South Carolina State. Pritzl converted three three-pointers in that game as well, and overall went 6-10 from the floor in 28 minutes of action. Even though Pritzl only scored six points in 24 minutes against Yale, he converted two of five shot attempts and collected six rebounds.

Though we only have three games as evidence, the way Pritzl has played in the early-going this season has to be very encouraging for Gard. Expect Pritzl to play 20+ minutes in a huge chunk of the Badgers’ remaining games this season.

2. Wisconsin Is Still Struggling At The Line

After converting under 70 percent of their free throws as a team last season for only the second time in the last 10 years, capitalizing from the stripe had to be emphasized by Gard in the offseason. Whether or not it was, the Badgers still lack consistent free throw shooting.

Wisconsin’s 64.4 percent free throw shooting last season was actually the team’s second lowest in the last 16 seasons. Through three games this season, the Badgers have made only 44-65 free throws (67.7 percent). This tiny improvement is nothing to be proud of and is definitely still an area of concern.

Tonight specifically, the Badgers’ performance from the line affected the outcome of the game. Wisconsin went 13-for-21 from the line (61.9 percent), while the Musketeers made the most of their free throw attempts, hitting 20-for-23. Tonight was the Badgers’ second embarrassing free throw performance in three games this season. Wisconsin went 11-for-18 from the line against South Carolina State (61.1 percent).

Playing competitively against an opponent like Xavier is obviously a plus. But if the Badgers want to come out on top against fierce competition, they can’t mess up the little things, such as free throws. Just as many things will this season, Wisconsin’s ability to succeed at the line this season is essentially controlled by Ethan Happ.

Happ’s relationship with free throws right now closely resembles former Badger Nigel Hayes’. Just as it was for Hayes, Happ is the player on Wisconsin that attempts the most free throws but also struggles to knock them down.

Happ has already attempted 27 free throws this season, while the next closest Badger to that is Brad Davison, who has only shot 10. Happ managed to contribute a solid effort from the line tonight, as he converted seven out of 10 free throws. However, the fact that Happ went 4-for-9 from the line to open the season and then 4-for-8 against Yale shows that he still hasn’t overcome his struggles.

Happ was a 50 percent free throw shooter last season and is shooting 55.6 percent from the line so far this season. For as good of a player as Happ is, he shouldn’t be missing so many free throws. And if he stays on the pace he is on, given how many free throws he attempts in a game, it will begin to amount to some losses for Wisconsin.

3. Brad Davison Is The Best Freshman On Wisconsin Right Now

Brad Davison wasn’t the highest rated out of Wisconsin’s three incoming scholarship players this season. Though Davison, Nate Reuvers, and Kobe King were all four-star recruits, Reuvers was the only one that cracked ESPN’s Top 100. However, Davison is the one playing like an ESPN Top 100 player at the moment.

Davison has steadily improved game-to-game in a number of ways so far. For one, his minutes continue to increase. After playing 14 minutes against South Carolina State, Davison’s minutes have increased by seven each game.

Davison also went from scoring five points in the season-opener, to eight against Yale, to 12 against the Musketeers. The guard is also getting quicker and quicker with his hands. Impressively, Davison has already stolen the ball nine times this season. And, of course, this number has improved each game. Davison collected two steals in Wisconsin’s first game, three in their second, and four against Xavier. The guard currently leads the Badgers in steals.

Though the sample size is small, Davison’s hustle and aggression really remind me of Zak Showalter. Similar to Showalter, Davison seems to be everywhere at once. Davison is a high-energy player, and even though he’s only 6-3, he isn’t afraid to get down and dirty.

Fouling, which was also a problem for Showalter at one point, is the biggest red flag so far for Davison. The guard picked up four fouls against Xavier and committed seven combined fouls in Wisconsin’s first two games. However, it is way too early for this to be a concern. If anything, it is a good thing that Davison is aggressive. He is a raw, inexperienced freshman. Over time, Davison will learn how to be aggressive cleanly.

If Gard were to have been told that Davison would be averaging 8.3 points per game through three games, he would absolutely take it. But it’s worth noting that Davison, who is very capable from three, hasn’t found his long-distance stroke yet. Davison is 3-10 from three so far this season. It’s fair to anticipate that he will eventually get hot from three, and when that happens, Davison will be a weapon in yet another facet of the game.

Overall

Even though the Badgers are definitely hanging their heads after this one, by no means should they be ashamed of their performance against one of the best teams in the country tonight. Wisconsin truly left it all on the floor against Xavier.

Even though they came up on the short end of this one, the Badgers’ gritty performance proves their legitimacy as contenders this season. After all, this was only Wisconsin’s third game so far this season. They will only improve from here.

There still are numerous questions regarding the youth and inexperience of this team. But if they’re able to compete all season like they did tonight, a 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament birth is in store.