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Three straight losses puts Badgers in unfamiliar spot

At 2-3, Wisconsin is trying to figure out how to finish games

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

The Wisconsin Badgers are in unfamiliar territory early this season. Wisconsin doesn’t typically lose three straight games, particularly three straight non-conference games, but that’s what happened this week when the Badgers lost three consecutive games to Xavier, Baylor and UCLA.

That’s not how you want to start a season when you’re a program like Wisconsin, but there’s no reason to panic yet. Everyone knew this young Badgers team was going to have rough patches, and was likely going to come out of the gates slowly with so many inexperienced guys stepping into significant roles. Add in three consecutive ranked teams and Wisconsin was going to drop a couple games early.

Still, it’s surprising the Badgers didn’t get at least one of those three and, five games in, Wisconsin has a lot of room to improve. The biggest issue has been Wisconsin’s late-game struggles. The Badgers have been in position to win their last three games, but each time wilted down the stretch.

Ethan Happ is one of the best players in the country and has shown that so far this year, but it can hard for a non-shooting big man to be a major threat offensively in tight ballgames where guards control the pace.

Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett hit back-to-back 3-pointers against Wisconsin to show the importance of having veteran guards who can hit big shots. Wisconsin doesn’t have that at this point, as sophomores D’Mitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl have struggled early on. Trice has been up and down, averaging 10.6 points and 2.6 assists per game, but freshman guard Brad Davison has already supplanted Trice as the late-game playmaker at times.

Davison, along with Happ, willed the Badgers back in the game after they got down big against Baylor. The 6-foot-3 guard has shown the ability to hit outside shots, while he is constantly attacking, typically dumping the ball off to a big man once he gets into the paint. Davison is averaging 10.4 points and 2.6 steals per game through is first five collegiate games.

Happ has transitioned extremely well into being the unquestioned go-to player. The 6-foot-10 junior is averaging 19.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. Happ, as always, has put on a clinic around the rim with his quickness, pivots and ability to finish, even against the athletic front lines of Xavier, Baylor and UCLA. He has also shown great vision and passing ability, continually catching in the high post and beating the zones of Baylor and UCLA. That’s a great sign, as Wisconsin is going to need to play off of Happ all season.

Everyone knows Happ is good. It’s developing secondary scorers that will determine Wisconsin’s success. Trice and Davison will each have their share of big games, and Khalil Iverson has shown he can be a difference-maker when he is attacking. The junior forward continually got to the rim against UCLA, finishing with 14 points and five rebounds.

Iverson is averaging 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists on the season, showing a good feel for how to play alongside Happ down low. However, as more than a secondary role player this season, Iverson can’t continue to lose possession as much as he does. He is averaging a team-high 3.2 turnovers per game while also getting the ball knocked out of his hands too often when attacking the basket.

Aleem Ford has also shown promising signs early on. The redshirt freshman forward took just five games to take Andy Van Vliet’s starting spot, although it remains to be seen if that’s a permanent change. Ford hasn’t put up big numbers, averaging 5.2 points and 1.8 rebounds per game, but he appears to make the right play, he can stretch the floor, and he can stick with people on the defensive end better than Van Vliet has shown.

Van Vliet was expected to make the biggest leap of Wisconsin’s trio of junior big men that also includes Charles Thomas IV and Alex Illikainen. None of those jumps have happened to this point, which is one of the main reasons the Badgers are 2-3. Van Vliet is averaging 6.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in 13.8 minutes per game, while Illikainen is averaging 0.6 points and 0.8 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game and Thomas is averaging 0.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 6.0 minutes per game.

Thomas and Illikainen are about out of upside after receiving relatively significant playing time for two-plus years, while Van Vliet still has plenty to figure out before becoming a reliable contributor. He still gets lost too much defensively, while his skinny frame limits him on both ends of the floor even when he is in position. For that reason, Ford and Iverson are going to be huge this season. If they can reasonably fill the “power forward” spot, it’ll free up anyone else.

Defensively, the Badgers look like they’ll be alright. Baylor killed Wisconsin inside early on and Xavier and UCLA each had stretches of offense, but the Badgers have enough plus-defenders and a strong enough system that their defense is going to keep them in games all season.

Wisconsin has a solid foundation with Happ, the 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, anchoring the inside. Iverson has taken on the role of a defensive stopper early on, including drawing the assignment of Bluiett. The 6-foot-5 forward has fared well thus far and has the strength and athletic ability to defend multiple positions.

Davison has gotten beat at times, but he continues to make plays defensively, whether it’s drawing charges or coming up with key steals. Trice is small, but quick enough to stay with point guards on the perimeter. In the end, it’s going to come down to the ability of the defensive system and rotations to be able to make up for any individual weak links.

Finally, the 3-pointers will need to start dropping for Wisconsin. The Badgers are shooting just 32.1 percent from behind the arc this season, a facet that was expected to improve after Wisconsin shot 35.9 percent on 3-pointers last year.

Davison has attempted the most 3-pointers thus far, connecting on 9 of 23 attempts, while Trice is shooting 8 of 22 from behind the arc. Those numbers are solid, but Pritzl has to improve on his 7-of-22 3-point shooting. Billed as the best shooter on the team, Pritzl still looks hesitant to fire at times. Whether they are consistently dropping or not, Pritzl needs to be comfortable shooting to free up the paint and driving lanes.

Freshman guard Kobe King will also need to get his shot going after a rough start to the season that has him averaging 4.4 points per game, including shooting just 1 of 8 from behind the arc. Iverson is never going to be a 3-point shooter, but Ford can help fill that void after hitting 4 of his 14 3-point attempts. Van Vliet is 6 of 12 on 3-pointers, but hasn’t shown that he can stay on the floor long enough for his shooting to make an impact.

Overall

The Badgers have earned the benefit of the doubt after undergoing a number of rebuilding periods to make 19 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. And they’ve actually performed better than many anticipated early on this season, particularly since some of their expected contributors have yet to hit their stride. But the Badgers will need to get things humming soon in order to make their 20th straight NCAA Tournament appearance and finish in the top four of the Big Ten Conference for the 17th straight year.