For the first time since 2015, a ranked Iowa basketball team is hosting a ranked foe in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It’s time to be mad again.
Tomorrow night we have No. 22 Wisconsin taking on No. 14 Iowa in the first game of a new 20-contest conference season.
To prepare for this one, we reached out to Jake Kocorowski of Bucky’s 5th Quarter to probe feelings on the Hawks. The interview is below. It’s pretty good.
Ben Ross: So here we are, the year is 2018, and the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes are each ranked and a combined 12-1 one year after the teams went a combined 29-37. So, what gives? I can tell you all about Iowa’s “turnaround” so far. What can you tell us about Wisconsin’s?
Jake Kocorowski: It really is a tale of Wisconsin returning a lot of players, plus two key guards in D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King coming back from injury. Last season, UW had to replace four key seniors from the year prior in Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter, Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown--then injuries struck the backcourt when Trice and King were both lost 10 games in for the rest of the 2017-18 campaign due to injury.
So far, Wisconsin has shown it has matured from the struggles seen a year ago. There is more depth at the guard positions, something that wasn’t there last year after Trice and King went down, plus another year in the weight room helped guys like King and sophomore forward Nate Reuvers--the latter who held a block party at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last week.
Trice has been on fire so far through seven contests, scoring 17 points per game and shooting over 48 percent from the field--60 percent from three-point range. We’ll talk more about Happ below, but he really has stepped up even more than he did a year ago. Trice returning has allowed noted charge-taker Brad Davision--himself finally healthy after playing through a recurring shoulder injury for most of last season--to return to an off guard role.
And as seen against N.C. State, they fought through some poor shooting and turnovers in the first half to ultimately come back to win on Tuesday. That probably does not happen last year.
BR: I don’t want to say it but ... ninth-year senior Ethan Happ has been playing Kaminsky-like. He’s led Wisconsin in scoring in over half their games, been the leading rebounder in every game, and led the team in assists in five of their seven games. He’s had a double double in every game! What are you seeing out of him that’s different from past seasons?
JK: I think taking the experience of working out for NBA teams last season before announcing his return to the Badgers helped. He is a force in the post and with his patented spin moves can create layups and easy shots. I think he’s just more efficient than last year, and having players around him step up and make shots have alleviated the pressure of being THE guy. Now teams have a “pick your poison” situation where you either double team him and leave someone open for a shot, or allow Happ to do his thing and likely set up a high percentage shot.
I’m not really sure if there’s a lot that’s necessarily changed in terms of his game from a year prior. He is not a three-point shooter and is only making half of his free throw attempts.
BR: You’re in year four of the Greg Gard Experiment. How do you (and fans) feel about him now? I imagine there’s been a complete about-face online about him now compared to feelings about him say, last March?
JK: I’ve always liked Gard. Pretty even keeled through good and bad, and last year currently is proving to be an aberration. There were the departures from the 2016-17 squad, injuries to King and Trice, and a class of 2015--Bo Ryan’s last recruiting class, for that matter--that had only two of five players (Khalil Iverson and Brevin Prtizl) contributing significantly. Now the Badgers were playing much better basketball at the end of last season, beating a highly-ranked Purdue squad at home and playing Michigan State close.
Anyone who was trying to call for his head last season was undeniably premature in that. He knows how to recruit, can teach his players and has the respect of the team. We’ll see what the rest of the season holds, but Wisconsin has shown early on that it has turned the page from a disappointing season.
BR: All four of Wisconsin’s leaders in minutes from last year returned this year, much like Iowa. Was there concern that the core of a team that went 15-18 a year ago would put out a similar performance this year? What has been the biggest surprise you’ve seen this season compared to a year ago?
JK: No, not really in pertaining to a similar performance seen last season. UW had 94.9 percent of its scoring returning, plus King, Trice and Davison all coming back healthy. The maturity and chemistry of the team grew as well in the offseason, so it was apparent some steps forward would take place.
The biggest surprise may just be Trice’s shooting. The redshirt sophomore connected on 4-of-5 three-point attempts against N.C. State, and has really shown the ability to be clutch when called upon. It was not from deep, but his two-point jumper with under 30 seconds left in the game on Tuesday extended the lead to three and helped tame the Wolfpack in the end. We’ll see if that continues during Big Ten play. If it does, he and Happ are a potent one-two combo that could spell trouble for the rest of the conference.
BR: Wisconsin is 6-1 on the year, the only blemish coming at the hands of Virginia in a 53-46 clunker. Do you enjoy watching that kind of game?! This is a safe space, you can be honest.
JK: I was at a book signing on Black Friday, so I wasn’t able to watch the game with my full attention. When I did, I think you can say there is an appreciation for the defense that was played by both teams. Virginia came in averaging over 77 points per contest but were held 24 below their average. Tony Bennett’s squad showed why it’s one of the best teams in the nation. I think the fact Wisconsin played competitively late and brought it within seven points is a promising sign, but yeah, at times it was not necessarily a “pretty” game.
Being a Milwaukee Bucks fan, I must say there is quite the contrast between Wisconsin and Giannis basketball.
BR: The last time these two teams faced off, Iowa notched just its second win of the conference season while Wisconsin shot 20 percent from the floor. But Ethan Happ still had a double double! (he had just 4 points in the first half) Do you think Iowa can win if they limit Happ to season-lows in the box score? Or is there enough talent on this Wisconsin team elsewhere to hurt Iowa? D’Mitrik Trice balled out against NC State in a game where you were down 12 at one point. Similarly, Iowa was down the majority of its game against Pitt but still squeaked out a win. We’ve been saying that that’s a game Iowa loses last year. Do you think that’s a similar sentiment for this Wisconsin team?
JK: Yeah, Wisconsin probably does not win the N.C. State game last year if played in a similar fashion. UW lost consecutive close games to Xavier, Baylor and UCLA during that 2017-18 campaign. This team is a season more experienced, more mature, and it showed in fighting back throughout the second half on Tuesday.
Regarding Happ’s production, I think it goes back to my answer about him earlier. Teams will either choose to defend him one-on-one or double up on him and risk someone like Trice, Davison, Brevin Pritzl or Aleem Ford beating you from deep (the latter making four of seven from three-point range vs. N.C. State after returning from a knee injury). I think the smart bet is to contain Happ and see if the others can beat you. If they do, well then it’s just a long night.
BR: Please rate Brad Davison’s buzzcut.
JK: Solid 7.5/10. I’ve covered the football team where Vince Biegel had a mullet ANNNNNND shaved designs into the sides of his head. Still waiting on that from Brad.
BR: And finally, WHO YA GOT?!
JK: I think Iowa takes a close one, though I do feel Wisconsin has a great chance to get a quality road win for its resume. Both teams are a year wiser, a year more mature. UW has been prone to some turnovers in the first half (see: Stanford and N.C. State). If they’re more efficient with the ball, obviously that will help on the road.
I just think in a road environment, it may just be a hint too much for the Badgers right now. If Happ and either Trice/Ford/Davison get going, however that will completely change the game.
Well, there you have it. Iowa is going to win, you heard it straight from the Wisconsin blogger’s mouth!
Buck the Fadgers.