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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, June 22, 2024
Vince Huth

Column: No surprise, but defense key for a Wisconsin tourney run

Wisconsin certainly didn’t enter the Big Ten tournament hitting on all cylinders. The Badgers lost two of three games before Friday’s matchup with Michigan, and their only ‘W’ came on the shoulders of a last-second 3-pointer from sophomore guard Traevon Jackson.

However, after promptly knocking off the Wolverines and Hoosiers—who were ranked No. 6 and No. 3 in the nation, respectively—UW was all of a sudden playing arguably as well as any team in the country.

Although the Badgers ultimately dropped the title game to then-No. 10 Ohio State, they found a familiar recipe for a successful NCAA tournament run during their three-day stint in Chicago.

In my judgment, Wisconsin’s defense was better during three games at the United Center than it’s been over any three-game stretch this season. Sure, UW has statistically played better defense over three games on a number of occasions, but the Badgers haven’t done so in consecutive games against teams the caliber of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State.

However, that’s not to suggest Wisconsin wasn’t impressive statistically over the weekend. The Wolverines’ 40.4 percent mark Friday was the most efficient shooting performance of any of the Badgers’ three opponents.

Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State averaged 55 points per game against UW in Chicago—the Hoosiers’ 56-point total was their lowest of the season—which is lower than Wisconsin’s average of 56.1 points per game allowed on the season. That’s good enough for the ninth-best scoring defense in the nation and No. 4 among the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament, which makes the Badgers’ run in the conference tournament even more impressive. And they did so in consecutive days, no less.

As is the case with any lockdown defensive unit, Wisconsin’s success guarding the opposition starts with its on-ball defense. The Badgers have been especially effective in forcing opponents into difficult 3-point shots, limiting them to just 29.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

That’s better 3-point defense than any team in the NCAA tournament, and UW’s opponent field goal percent ranks among the top teams in the field.

Although the final step in contesting a field goal attempt requires airtight positioning and a hand in the shooter’s face, making shot attempts difficult for a shooter stems from decisive off-the-ball defense.

Wisconsin held Indiana senior guard Jordan Hulls, one of the Big Ten’s top 3-point gunners (48 percent) to a combined nine points on 4-of-17 shooting, including 1-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc, in two games this season. The Badgers largely contained Hulls because of junior guard Ben Brust’s ability to chase the sharpshooter around screens, according to redshirt freshman forward Sam Dekker.

Wisconsin also excels in perhaps the most important element to an effective defense: transition ‘D.’ The Badgers held Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State to a combined 17 fast break points this weekend. In fact, UW, whose slow-paced offense has been compared to watching paint dry, outscored the Hoosiers in fast break points Saturday.

Ultimately, UW aims to limit the opposition’s high quality shots—open triples and easy buckets around the basket—with the end goal of luring teams into difficult 2-point attempts. Wisconsin’s opponents have shot 42.7 percent on such shots this season, a mark equal to none other than overall No. 1 seed Louisville.

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I’m sure there are plenty of NCAA teams with more NBA-caliber players than Wisconsin, and I won’t argue the Badgers are more watchable than an up-tempo team like Virginia Commonwealth. However, I call shenanigans on anyone who says it won’t be entertaining to see if UW can ride its defense-first approach to Atlanta.

How far do you think Wisconsin will advance in the tournament? Let Vince know by sending him an email at sports@dailycardinal.com.

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