What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of a blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Phil from Bucky's 5th Quarter, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Wisconsin.
1) Wisconsin had a fairly disastrous non-conference season and started Big Ten play 1-4. They've gone 7-1 in Big Ten play since then -- what's changed? Has it been a function of an easier schedule? Increased experience for younger players? Greater comfort under new coach Greg Gard? A combination of all of the above?
PHIL: The schedule didn't get any easier, which makes the turnaround all the more impressive. The team finally found its identity under Gard, who switched back to the swing offense to get better movement. For the most part, the Wisconsin offense was just soooo broken for the first half of the season, but that switch helped the Badgers get on the same page, which was especially important for the younger and more inexperienced bench players. We've seen that this year's team has to either shoot well on three-pointers or get to the line a lot on order to win, something they've accomplished in every big win. However the other part of Wisconsin's identity is just playing tougher, which has happened on both ends of the floor.
2) With the departures of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker a year ago, it seems like this is fully Nigel Hayes' team now. Is that accurate? How has he handled that role?
PHIL: That's pretty accurate. There has been a learning curve for Hayes, but he's embraced that role more definitively than, say, Bronson Koenig. Hayes has always been outspoken, so he's the vocal leader who can get away with calling out the Badgers in rough times, whereas Koenig is quieter. Hayes is also the most talented player so he can lead by example. Early on, he was trying to defer too much in the first halves of games and when Wisconsin got behind, he'd be forcing up bad shots in the second half to try to get UW back in the game. He's still a great playmaker form the post, but he hasn't been forcing things as much. He's also been criticized for some of his body language on the court, but for the most part being calm is part of his personality. The only things I've seen personally that lacked leadership are the few times Hayes hasn't hustled back on defense, usually after he thinks he was fouled.
3) Ethan Happ's emergence in Big Ten play seems to have coincided with Wisconsin's recent winning streak. What makes the freshman so dangerous and what should Iowa fans be wary of when he's on the floor on Wednesday night?
PHIL: Happ is dangerous because he doesn't quit. He has a great nose for the ball, whether it be snagging rebounds on both ends or stealing the ball at a rate near the top of the conference ladder. Offensively, he's more seasoned than most freshmen on the block because he went head-to-head every day with Frank Kaminsky during his redshirt season. I know it gets mentioned every other telecast so it's kind of clichéd, but it's true. Like Kaminsky, Happ focuses on having a few go-to moves and also counter moves, which makes him tough to stop down low. Now, if Happ could just convert all the layups he creates for himself...
If I were Iowa, I would send him to the free throw line, where's he's been inconsistent, or force him out of the paint. At this point, Happ has no jumper.
4) How disappointed are Wisconsin fans that the only Iowa-Wisconsin game in the regular season is in Iowa City, preventing them from getting one more chance to shower Jarrod Uthoff with boos in Madison? What's going to become of the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry with no Uthoffs, Bohannons, or Brusts to fuel the enmity between the fanbases?
PHIL: I'm sure that disappoints the lunatic fringe, but I don't think this rivalry will have any less juice when Uthoff is gone as long as Fran McCaffery is strolling the sideline. Fran is up there with Tom Crean as the Big Ten coach it is easiest to hate on. A Bohannon is headed to Iowa City soon, but that probably minimizes tension more than increases it. I think both teams continuing to perform well will do enough to keep this rivalry going due to proximity, as long as we can end this "play only once a year" crap.
5) How will Wisconsin look to defend Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok?
PHIL: Straight up man-to-man of course! Uthoff is going to be challenging for Wisconsin because neither of the Badger big men are as fluid as he is. It sounds like Happ might get the assignment to start, but I think Vitto Brown will get a shot, as Happ is prone to foul trouble. Brown needs to be dialed in on the perimeter to respect Uthoff's jump shot while moving his feet as best he can. Uthoff on Brown probably makes the most sense for Iowa as well.
Hayes is the natural choice on Jok. Hayes has eventually slid over to defend bigger guards admirably throughout the year; he seems to like the challenge of shutting them down when their size has posed a problems for a smaller guy like Zak Showalter. Showalter also gambles a bit much at times when being screened, so if Jok comes off a lot of picks typically, Hayes is better at fighting through. It will be interesting to see if freshman Khalil Iverson gets assigned to Jok at any point. Iverson is still pretty raw, but has the size, strength and length to match up well with Jok ... on paper, at least.
Wisconsin switches on screens a lot, often leading to mismatches. But against Illinois, Gard stopped doing that midstream and Wisconsin started getting the stops it needed against Malcolm Hill and company.
6) What are the odds that Greg Gard is able to remove the "interim" tag and become the full-time head coach for Wisconsin? Are Wisconsin fans rooting for him to become the head guy long term or are they interested in a change of direction for Badger hoops?
PHIL: Greg Gard has greatly improved his odds of being retained, in my opinion. He's now more of a known quantity that works here. I think rooting for a change in direction is misguided, especially since the one guy who could pull the rug out from under Gard would be Tony Bennett. While Bennett would sweep Badger Nation off its feet as a returning basketball prince of sorts, his philosophy wouldn't be all that different from Gard's. It feels like most people are rooting for Gard at this point, since Bennett is a long shot and we're all eager to continue the success of the past 15 years. Barring an embarrassing exit in the Big Ten tournament, Gard should be in good shape. Barry Alvarez could chase Archie Miller too, but for what?
7) Time to put your marker down: will Wisconsin make the NCAA Tournament? What do they need to do to prevent themselves from having to sweat it out too much on Selection Sunday?
PHIL: Yes, Wisconsin will be dancing. Beating Minnesota and winning one more regular season game puts the Badgers at 11-7 in conference and makes it a no brainer. The terribly silly losses under Bo Ryan were long ago and Wisconsin has signature wins. However, this means UW has to beat either Michigan (home) or Purdue (away) if it loses to Iowa -- no small task. Still, the Badgers have the 10th-best SOS according to Jerry Palm, so they can get in via other ways. With a 10-8 Big Ten record, UW would need two wins in the conference tourney to feel comfortable. They'd be staring at 14 losses on Selection Sunday most likely, so you want to have at least 20 wins. Only one win, or falling to 9-9 in conference? Now it's dicey.
8) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
PHIL: Iowa has often been a bad matchup for the Badgers even in the Hawkeyes' leaner years. Wisconsin is too prone to offensive droughts and at Iowa's pace, that might dig a hole too deep for the Badgers to climb out of. Both teams still have a lot to play for, but I think Iowa wins by six or seven points.
Thanks for being a good sport, Phil, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tonight. You can check out the B5Q crew at Bucky's 5th Quarter. You can also follow B5Q on Twitter at @B5Q and Phil on Twitter at @hoopsmarinara. The Iowa-Wisconsin game is in Iowa City, IA, on Wednesday, February 24, and is scheduled to start at approximately 8:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from BTN.