Non-conference games at the beginning of a season present a unique challenge—teams face opponents that they don’t know nearly as well as their annual conference foes. But for Wisconsin, the recent stretch of games has been remarkably familiar.
The No. 17 Badgers (6-2) will, for the third time in a row and fourth time this season, play an opponent they matched up with a season ago when they welcome the Oklahoma Sooners (5-1) to the Kohl Center Saturday afternoon.
Just like last year, UW scheduled Prairie View A&M, Syracuse and Oklahoma in consecutive games in 2016. It also bested Georgetown in the Maui Invitational, a team that beat them in 2015 relatively handily.
The Badgers were soundly trounced by the Sooners the last time the two played, scoring a measly 48 points in the 17-point blowout. But that Oklahoma team was lead by nationally heralded superstars Ryan Spangler and Buddy Hield, both of whom have moved on from the program.
“Obviously not having a Buddy Hield there or Spangler they’re different,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “But they’re still good. Coach Kruger is a heck of a coach, they’ll come in with another challenge Saturday so we won’t get much of a break this weekend when we come back.”
With their two stars gone, the spotlight has been turned toward senior guard Jordan Woodard. Woodard was a big part of the 2015 Final Four team, but spent a lot of timing doing his work in the gaping defensive holes created by the presence of Hield and Spangler. The two combined for 32 points in the Sooners’ last matchup with the Badgers, allowing Woodard to rack up a healthy five assists on the night.
Though he stands at just six feet tall, Woodard should do a solid job slowing down senior guard Bronson Koenig, who has struggled to find his shot, but seemed to get back on track against Syracuse. The Sooner guard ranks 50th in the nation in steal percentage at 4.7 percent and does an excellent job defending without fouling.
Though Woodard has played admirably this season, it would be sinful to pretend that the Sooners haven’t taken a significant step back this season. After opening last year with a 12-game win streak—which was only halted by a 3-point, triple-overtime loss to No. 1 Kansas—OU has already dropped a game to unranked Northern Iowa, a game which the Badgers think they can learn a lot from.
“I heard that Northern Iowa beat them down in the Paradise Jam, but it will be interesting to see how that game played out,” Moore said. “I think we are very similar to Northern Iowa in our philosophy, in our principles and things of that nature. So it will be interesting to see how that happened.”
Senior forward Nigel Hayes has also struggled this season but looked better than ever against the Orange Tuesday night. His career-high 10 assists went mostly the way of redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ, who also blew up for 24 points and 13 rebounds.
If those two continue to play off of each other the way they clearly can, it could be a long afternoon for the Sooners.
The game tips off at the Kohl Center at 12 p.m. Saturday.