For a long stretch of No. 17 Wisconsin’s (5-2) practice Monday afternoon, members of the UW scout team sported pinnies specifically in preparation for tomorrow’s game against the No. 22 Syracuse (4-1). The mesh jerseys were appropriately orange as the Badgers worked on attacking the Orange’s infamous 2-3 zone.
Monday was the first time the Badgers took out the orange pinnies, but after an overtime win against the Orange last season, a nearly identical Wisconsin team feels confident and prepared going up against the unique Syracuse defense.
“I think we are a lot more confident this year than last year,” sophomore forward Charles Thomas said. “We were a little inexperienced going into Syracuse. They threw some pressure at us, but we handled it well.
Thomas is one of a number of Badger sophomores who experienced the Syracuse zone for the first time last season.
Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ recorded 18 points and 15 rebounds in Wisconsin’s 66-58 victory last season, while fellow sophomore Khalil Iverson got a taste of the Syracuse zone as well.
“Look at the Syracuse game last year; they were in the there, in the thick of the battle,” assistant coach Howard Moore said of Thomas and Iverson’s performance against the Orange last season. “I thought they matured a lot over the past year. They are starting to understand how they can be effective and stay within themselves and not try to do too much or get out of their realm.”
Thomas has been one of UW’s most improved players and has emerged as one of the Badgers’ best rebounders.
He currently ranks second on the team in defensive rebounding percentage and has been active on the offensive glass as well.
While the Orange have registered a plus-50 margin on the defensive glass this season, they have a negative offensive rebound differential, leaving Thomas, Happ and fellow frontcourt players seniors Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown to potentially wreak havoc on the offensive boards Tuesday night.
While the color of their jersey might be the same, the Orange team that the Badgers are facing this time around is vastly different from the team they squared off with last year.
Syracuse’s offense is highly dependant on its two most recent additions, graduate transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon.
White, a transfer from Nebraska, was one of the best scorers in the Big Ten last season and has continued to light up opposing defenses early on this season, averaging just a shade under 16 points per game.
Gillon, a transfer from Colorado State, has also been a key offensive contributor for the Orange, scoring double-digits in three of Syracuse’s first five games.
The Orange do still have sophomore forward Tyler Lydon, who is one of the toughest players in the ACC to matchup with thanks to his 6-foot-9 frame and lethal 3-point stroke.
Lydon was the Orange’s leading scorer in their most recent game, a 64-50 loss to South Carolina, and was named to both the Naismith and Wooden watch lists before the season.
Defensively, though, Syracuse presents the same challenge that it has for decades: the 2-3 zone. The Orange force nearly 14 turnovers a game out of their zone and hold opponents to only 20 percent shooting from three.
The Badgers recognize that by getting the ball inside the zone and attacking the teeth of the defense, they will be far more successful.
“I was watching film from last year, it was like a zone offensive clinic with the way our guys moved the ball, found teammates, bounce passes on the baseline, skips to shooters on the opposite side of the floor, pound it inside, get it out, one more pass,” Moore said. “It was just a really good clip tape of what you want to do versus length.”
The Badgers have in-game experience against the zone. And according to Moore, watching film of themselves playing against them hours after their victory over Prairie View A&M is an invaluable teaching tool.
Practicing against players in orange pinnies Monday afternoon shouldn’t hurt either.
The Badgers are comfortable and confident for tomorrow’s game, which tips off at 6:30 p.m. at the Kohl Center.