It’s extremely difficult to explain exactly why, but this Badger team feels like a Team of Destiny.
It’s been a little over a month since my last column explaining why Wisconsin would be perfectly fine without Kobe King – and what do you know, turns out they were perfectly fine.
But, this recent eight-game winning streak feels different than a team simply making the best of a bad situation. Something has clearly changed around the team — games are consistently going Wisconsin’s way, and scoring droughts are fewer and further between.
So, what has changed? There has to be some reason beat writer Bremen Keasey and I have been feeling Team of Destiny vibes for weeks.
First of all, I think King’s departure was the absolute best thing that could have happened to both him, and the Badgers. King was clearly petering out in the program — he didn’t have a single game shooting above 50 percent from the field in nearly a month before his departure.
King pointed to his lack of enthusiasm as a reason for leaving midseason as well, so combining lackluster shooting with increasing unhappiness, and you can end up with a player doing more harm than help despite his overall talent.
I also just want to throw in that regardless of his performance, his happiness, unhappiness or anything in between, it’s his decision to make, and we should all support players who make a decision that’s best for them. It’s college, and 20-year-old kids deserve to be happy and have fun. Hopefully the move to Nebraska will be what he hopes it will be.
Moving forward from King’s transfer, I wrote about how players like Aleem Ford or Tyler Wahl would have to step up — and while Wahl hasn’t exactly become the world-beater I had hoped for (he’s still a freshman so I still think it will happen eventually), Ford has been excellent.
For much of Ford’s career at Wisconsin I felt he played timid — mostly putting up shots at the very end of possessions when the Badgers were in panic mode, or contested layups right at the rim. It led to just 38 percent shooting from the floor, and 26 percent from three-point range this season before King’s transfer.
But since? Forty-seven percent from the floor, and nearly 40 percent from three.
That’s an astounding nine-point difference in overall field goal percentage, and a 14 (!!) percent higher percentage from three. Ford has also upped his rebounds per-game from 3.4 to 6.4, and his scoring totals are up another three points-per-game, from 7.6 to 10.6.
Ford’s aggressiveness on the court is night-and-day compared to his play prior to the transfer. He’s banging around in the post like I’ve never seen before and driving to the rim with authority.
It’s like a switch turned on in his head that said, “Hey, I’m 6’-8” and 225 pounds, I can bully these kids.”
I don’t think that’s any better exemplified by his monster slam against Minnesota with less than a minute left, which ended up sealing the game for Wisconsin. In previous seasons Ford may not have made the cut to the basket, or put down a dunk with that sort of authority.
The change in Ford’s play has been part necessity, and part newly discovered offensive spacing in Wisconsin’s offense.
When King left, he was putting up about 10 points-per-game, and someone had to pick up the slack. Ford’s shots attempted per-game since then have risen by about 2.5, which means he’s getting to showcase his offensive skillset much more often.
However, King was shooting just 25 percent from three this season, which seriously hurt the Badgers offensive spacing. Defenders knew King wasn’t a huge threat from beyond, so they could sag off in the lane and clog up Wisconsin’s motion offense. With Ford now picking up King's slack on offense, defenders have been slow to adjust to Ford’s unique mix of height, driving and shooting ability.
Sag off too much and watch a three splash through the net. Play him too tight, and you might end up in a poster like this someday.
Ford hasn’t been the only Badger to step over the last 10 games though, as junior transfer Micah Potter has had arguably the biggest impact on the team since he finally became eligible.
Potter is averaging career highs in almost every category, including plus eight percent on three-point attempts (37.8 percent career, 45.8 percent this season), and ten-point jumps in free throw percentage (75.2, 85) and player efficiency rating (20.5, 30.9).
At 6’10” and 250 pounds he’s the Badgers best option for an automatic bucket in the paint, shooting over 50 percent from close range on the season. But, his touch from outside has been even more impressive.
Coming into the program, coaches expected Potter to primarily bang down low, with occasional trips outside the arc. However, the junior has been stepping outside of the paint much more frequently — attempting three triples a game since King’s transfer, and knocking down over 43 percent of them.
For some context on how absurd those shooting numbers are, junior guard Brad Davison is knocking down about 35.9 percent of his threes, while D’Mitrik Trice is shooting 37.6 percent from long range.
Potter has done more than provide consistent offense however, averaging seven rebounds a game – with just over two offensive rebounds and five defensive rebounds per-game. He far outpaces the entire team in rebounding, with Nate Reuvers in second grabbing 4.5 boards per-game.
Against Indiana on Saturday, Potter nabbed 11 rebounds, leading to some attention from famed UW-alum Big Cat.
As good as Potter and Ford have been since King’s transfer, Wisconsin as a team has improved in key areas in the last 10 games. They’ve shot nearly six percent better from three (from 33 to 38.5), four percent better from the free throw line (from 73.3 to 77.5) and are turning the ball over at the best rate since the 2014-15 Final Four team (8.2 per-game).
Those modest increases across the board have huge impacts on the swing of games. More made three’s and free throws lead to not only more points for the Badgers, but fewer transition possessions for opponents. The same impact can be found in limiting turnovers, especially in the system Wisconsin runs where possessions are more valuable than gold.
It’s pretty hard to quantify Team of Destiny, especially in college basketball when you have mid-majors like Dayton and San Diego State tearing through their leagues this season, looking like world beaters.
However, here’s what I do know.
This season has been about something bigger than basketball for the Badgers. Before the season started Wisconsin’s assistant coach Howard Moore was involved in a horrific car crash that killed his wife and daughter, and left Moore and his son with serious injuries. All season the slogan “4 Moore” has been on the back of Wisconsin’s warm ups, and in the minds of every player during every minute of every game.
Moore was a leader for the Badgers, both on the court and off it. All head coach Greg Gard could think about after winning the Big Ten regular season title this weekend was how he wanted to take the trophy to Moore so he could touch and kiss it.
It’s about more than a game at this point — but even if we were just talking about measurable accomplishments that set the Badgers apart from the field, I can rattle those off too.
Wisconsin has beaten every team (except Illinois somehow?) at or near the top of the Big Ten. Wisconsin has a better NET rating than every Big Ten team except Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State — and a better RPI than everyone except Maryland and Michigan State. Wisconsin has the most Q1 wins out of any Big Ten team. And Wisconsin is your 2019-’20 Big Ten Champion.
It always benefits a team to be hot entering March, and there are few teams around the country hotter than the Badgers right now.
Nobody thought Wisconsin would be here, so who's to say they can’t continue to win?