Before No. 4 seed Florida squares off against No. 8 seed Wisconsin on Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City for a spot in the Elite Eight, we asked BadgerBlitz.com's John Veldhuis for the inside scoop on the Badgers. Veldhuis breaks down what Florida fans should know ahead of Friday's big matchup.
Our questions and his answers are included below.
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What factors would you say have played a key part in Wisconsin's Sweet 16 run during this NCAA Tournament?
Veldhuis: The contributions that the Badgers have gotten from two of their star seniors - point guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes - are hard to overlook as the Badgers head to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers brought back all but one walk-on from last year’s Sweet 16 team, so it was easy to see that senior leadership would be the lynchpin for this Wisconsin team - but Koenig and Hayes have stepped up and made plays after the Badgers endured a tough stretch at the end of the season where they lost five of their final seven regular season games.
Koenig was the hero in Wisconsin’s first game against Virginia Tech. He’s always had a knack for taking (and making) big 3-pointers late in the shot clock, but he was on fire from outside in Round 1. Koenig made 8 of his 17 shots from 3-point range in that game, setting a school record for 3-pointers in a single game. He finished with 28 total points, and gave the Badgers a major boost.
But Koenig dealt with foul trouble for most of UW’s game against Villanova, and only played in nine minutes after halftime after picking up two fouls almost back to back in the second half. That forced Nigel Hayes to step up and keep the game close while Koenig had to sit, and he made shot after shot to keep pace with Villanova - including what ended up being the game winner off of a layup by the baseline. Koenig had eight points in his limited action in the second half, but the Badgers wouldn’t have won that game without Hayes providing some stability for their offense.
As compared to Bo Ryan, how would you describe Greg Gard's coaching style? What does he normally like to do, playbook-wise?
Veldhuis: The Badgers are still pretty similar to what people got used to seeing under Bo Ryan, but that’s natural when Gard had spent so long working as Ryan’s top assistant dating back to when Ryan was the head coach at D-III UW-Platteville. But Gard seems a little more open to making changes in his team’s routines and rotations than Ryan was - he had been around for a long time, and had a pretty firm idea of what he thought worked and what didn’t. But after Gard took over last year we saw more of a rotation in the players that came in off of the bench, and the Badgers went back to their basic swing offense more often under Gard. The Badgers have even used a zone defense once or twice under Gard - something that I don’t think Bo Ryan ever used when he was running the show, or if he did it was so long ago that nobody remembers it.
When it comes to the offensive side of the ball the Badgers are really going to try and work the ball in to the post as much as they can. It’s the best way to get their offense humming if they can establish a bit of a rhythm there, because sophomore forward Ethan Happ can be their best player when he’s at the top of his game. He’s got great footwork and spacial awareness, and can make defenders look silly with some of his spin moves. But teams have figured out they can double-team Happ and make the Badgers try something else, and it seems like these last few games have been decided by if the Badgers can score when teams make Happ less of a factor.
One of the big storylines about the Badgers has been their interior presence with Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ. What are the frontcourt's greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
Veldhuis: I touched on Happ a bit in the last question - he’s starting to figure out what he can do to keep the offense from stalling if a team is going to double up on him. Usually that means he’ll kick the ball out to a guard waiting from where the second defender came from, which most of the time means that Koenig will get some more space to take shots if the Badgers get a matchup they like. Happ is also a pretty darn good defender - he averages just under two steals per game, but he can be over-aggressive in swatting at the ball. Staying out of foul trouble will be big for Happ and the Badgers. They need him out on the court, and it’s hard to keep him out there if he’s hacking at the ball when he shouldn’t be on the defensive end.
Hayes has always been an interesting player to look at - he’s got great size to play in the post, but it always seems to me like he could be more active there. When he drives and attacks he can be hard to stop, but he also has a pretty good jump shot that he can make from 17 or 16 feet out. He’s hard to guard, but Wisconsin’s offense is much better when he’s an aggressive post player - he takes some of the pressure off of Happ that way.
Neither player has been great at shooting free throws this season though, which is a problem since they take way more free throw shots than anyone else on the team. Happ is more of a liability there and is shooting 49.4 percent from the line on the season, with Hayes shooting 59.3 percent. If they’re making their free throws they could be in great shape, but it could come back to bite them in a close game.
Who else in the Wisconsin rotation besides the obvious names should we keep an eye on Friday night? Anybody under the radar who you feel is due to break out?
Veldhuis: Wisconsin’s bench has been pretty inconsistent this season, but backup point guard D’Mitrik Trice has shown flashes when he’s on the court to relieve Bronson Koenig. Trice struggled in Wisconsin’s game against Villanova, but he’s a smart player with a smooth 3-point shot who makes things a lot easier for the Badgers if he can knock down a basket or two while Koenig is on the bench. He needs to make better decisions with the ball though, as do most freshmen.
And while it’s tough to say people overlook a starter, both Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter can give the Badgers a spark at times if they’re on their game. Brown has had a tough senior season, particularly in Big Ten play, but he’s knocked down several 3-pointers during the tournament and appears to be getting his confidence back. He was the X-factor for the Badgers last season, and he makes their lives much easier if he can hit a few 3s during a game. Showalter is the team’s energizer - he can shoot from the outside and can cut in towards the basket for quick layups, too. If the Badgers get good games from their big three and some timely contributions from one of Showalter or Brown they can be pretty tough to beat.
What's your prediction for Friday night's game and why?
Veldhuis: It looks like Florida is about a 2-point favorite for the game, which strikes me as being pretty fair. Both teams are very solid on the defensive end, although the Badgers think they can improve on the defense they’ve shown during the tournament so far. I don’t have much of a gut feeling about this game either way, but I think it’s fair for the Badgers to be feeling confident when you consider all the NCAA tournament experience this team has under their belts. The Badgers are going to need to avoid the shooting slump that killed them during the last part of Big Ten play, but I think they’ve got their mojo back to the point where they can win this game and move on to the Elite Eight. Originally I didn’t think this team would make a deep run in to the tournament though, so if their offensive struggles show up again it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Gators pull this one out either.
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