Sports

Column: The loss of Kobe King may hurt, but the Badgers are far from being "over"

Wisconsin has the players on it's roster now to stay competitive, and even improve throughout the rest of the season.
Wisconsin has the players on it's roster now to stay competitive, and even improve throughout the rest of the season. Image By: Taylor Wolfram

It has been quite the week for Badger basketball.

First Kobe King decided to sit out the Iowa game, then announced his intent to transfer days later. 

Minutes later, Brad Davison was suspended by the Big Ten for a Flagrant one foul against Iowa. If you were like most Badger fans on Twitter, then you lost your damn mind about all the news, and rightfully so. 

But, though things are bad, they might not be as bad as they seem for the Badgers. In fact, I honestly think the team might get better from here on out.

First off, I need to address the Greg Gard slander that has been clogging my Twitter feed. 

Greg Gard is a good coach. Sam Dekker thinks so, Josh Gasser thinks so, Zak Showwalter thinks so and Ben Brust thinks so. So, if all our program greats from the Final Four years like him, I think it’s safe to say he’s at least alright.

Gard owns one of the top win percentages in school history through his first four-plus years — as high or higher than any similar stretch in Bo Ryan’s career — including an unbelievable five wins against top five ranked opponents. 

Despite strong criticism for a lack of recruiting, Gard got a 35th ranked recruiting class to Madison in 2017, and a 19th ranked class for 2020 as head coach, so he can clearly recruit players.

When he first took over in 2015-16, the Badgers were a train wreck at 8-8 in late December, and Gard got them to finish as the No. 16 team in coach polls and into the tournament.

The idea that “Gard can’t develop players” is ludicrous as well. In 2017-18, the Badgers were hot garbage, shooting under 45 percent from the field all year, missing the tournament in a sub-.500 performance. Last I remember, that same team has both made it to the tournament in 2018-19, and are projected to make it again in 2019-20. That’s improvement by itself.

If you’re still not convinced, remember Gard has had control over his team for just four full years. Often in college sports you hear coaches lay out five or 10-year plans for their team and we haven’t even given Gard that chance.

So now we’ve established Gard is actually pretty good at his job, let’s tackle some other issues the Badgers have on the court using advanced statistics, everyone’s favorite type of statistics.

It’s no secret Wisconsin has been putrid on the road this season, just 3-8 on the year, but well above average at home with a 9-1 record. So, we’ll focus primarily on what’s been going wrong on the road this year, because clearly something about the Kohl Center makes this team tick.

On the road Wisconsin has mustered up under a 39.5 percent shooting percentage overall, and just 26 percent from deep. While those numbers are abysmal — and don’t get me wrong they are terrible — they aren’t unheard of for a Wisconsin team. 

The 2012-13 Badger’s actually shot worse on the road — 38.7 percent from the field and 29.8 percent from three-point range — but were able to scratch out a 8-9 record in those games, went 23-12 overall and finished the season at No. 18 in the AP poll before losing in the second round of the tournament. They had wins against No. 4 Indiana, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan, in a typical up-and-down Wisconsin season. There were no calls for Bo’s job at any point in that season, and as far as I can remember fans were pretty content with the year.

So, why was that 2012-13 team able to have so much success despite putting up equally bad — if not worse — stats than the team this year?

Well, here’s where the advanced analytics get involved. Through 21 games, the 2019-20 Badgers offensive rating (ORtg) on the road is hovering around 89 this season, which means the Badgers score just 89 points per 100 possessions. During the 2012-13 season Wisconsin’s road ORtg was 96 through 21 games, a jump of seven (!) points-per-100 possessions.

However, like I said earlier, box score shooting percentages of those two teams are remarkably similar. The true shooting percentage (TS%) of those two teams backs that up too — in both years Wisconsin’s TS% is roughly 48 percent. So, if shooting numbers are the same between the teams, there must be another reason the 2019-20 Badgers have such a low ORtg.

Here’s where the bombs start to drop. Throughout all 10 years of Badger basketball analytic data I combed through, including the 2012-13 year, nine seasons had assist percentages per-100 possessions (AST%) above 53 — meaning 53 of every 100 possessions ended on an assist. 

The one year that number has dropped? 2019-20.

Wisconsin is assisting on just 43.7 percent of all its possessions this season, a nearly 20 (!!) percent drop in AST% from most other years. That suggests something fans have been complaining about all season, the offense is not moving the ball effectively. It gets stagnant for long periods each game, when ball handlers just dribble around at the top of the key, or the ball gets stuck in the paint, before a hurried jumpshot or post fadeaway gets thrown up.

It’s always easier to make a shot if your teammates put you in positions to make baskets, so when Wisconsin lulls on offense, ball movement is particularly bad. But, as much as I’d love to pretend the Badger’s problems end there, they don’t.

Former UW standout Ethan Happ was a monster for Wisconsin last year, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game. But I argue his rebounds, not his points, were actually more instrumental for Wisconsin’s success.

Wisconsin, during the Greg Gard era, has averaged a true rebounding percentage (TRB%) averaging 55 percent on the road. TRB% measures essentially how many available rebounds each player grabs while out on the floor — a 50 percent TRB% would mean the Badgers corral half of all available rebounds during a game.

A season ago, with Happ’s rebounds, Wisconsin’s road TRB% was a respectable 53.5 percent. This season, without a defined rebounder down low, it has plummeted to 46.5 percent, lowest since 2012-13. That means more often than not Wisconsin is being out-rebounded on the road, and more often than not the team with the most rebounds wins the game.

The loss of Happ has affected more than just rebounding however.

Last season Wisconsin held a three-point attempt rate (3PAr) of 36 percent on the road, as the Badgers could just let Happ work in the post. Without Happ, this season the Badgers 3PAr has skyrocketed on the road compared to 2018-19, up to 44 percent.

This is in part due to the Badgers lack of a consistent post threat save Micah Potter, however I think the eye test works best to explain why Wisconsin is shooting so many more threes, and it ties into the low AST% and TRB% too. 

Like I said earlier, the Badgers offense has looked stagnant for long periods of just about every game this year. The ball gets stuck in someone's hand, or guards dribble around the top of the key for 10-15 seconds before finding a pass. It significantly lowers the Badgers chance at getting a good shot, because for most of the shot clock the opposing team doesn’t really have to defend.

When the shot clock finally hits under eight seconds or so, the team finally jumps into action, but it’s usually too little too late. Defenders have already closed off the paint, and Wisconsin gets forced into taking a long two or three pointer, which points to the higher 3PAr and the lower AST%.

The long two’s and three’s usually don’t go in either, which often leads to a long rebound off the back of the rim to the other team. A missed jump shot by a teammate is a difficult rebound to corral as it flies off the rim, which leads to fewer offensive rebounds by the Badgers, and a lower TRB%.

To recap, stagnant offense leads to hurried jump shots, which leads to more rebounds for Wisconsin’s opponent.

So why did I tell you everything was going to be ok at the beginning of this, despite Wisconsin losing its smoothest offensive player, while inefficiencies plague the rest of the team? Because Kobe was actually part of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, the Badgers are a better team when he is out on the court, but his style of play never truly fit in with Wisconsin’s system. Wisconsin always has a “three” guard who can rebound, and King never really went for it on the glass.

This season, King’s statline was 10.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per-game. Previous Badger three-guard Khalil Iverson averaged about 5 rebounds a game throughout his career, on four less minutes-per-game than King this year. Before Iverson, it was Nigel Hayes, who nabbed 6.6 rebounds a game in his Senior campaign, before Hayes it was Ryan Evans, who grabbed 7.3 rebounds-per-game.

King is good, but either he can't, or he doesn't want to rebound in-game, which is something Wisconsin needs their three to do.

Now that he’s gone, Wisconsin has a platoon of options to switch in for King who all bring better rebounding potential to the table. Brevin Pritzl would be an unconventional pick for his size, but he’s averaging 3.3 rebounds-per-game and has the grit necessary to hang with larger guards. 

Two other candidates, Tyler Wahl and Aleem Ford could fill the void King is leaving more traditionally. Both players have the height necessary to play and guard the three position more naturally, and both are averaging more boards on significantly less playing time than King — 3.3 and 3.5 rebounds a game respectively.

Ford and Pritzl are already scoring more than 7.5 points-per-game, so a slight offensive uptick from both of them, plus a few more points each night for Wahl, and the Badgers already have an answer for the slack King will leave with his scoring.

Again, I am NOT saying Wisconsin is better off without King — in fact I thought he was their best player before Tuesday — but I am saying all is not lost. Wisconsin has the pieces in place to weather this storm, and still make it into the tournament in March. 

Don’t be surprised when they do it.

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