What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Phil at Bucky's 5th Quarter, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Wisconsin.
1) What's been the biggest reason for Wisconsin's turnaround lately? They've won four in a row and five of seven after dropping three in a row and five of six (although those streaks also overlap a bit), including wins over Michigan State and Michigan over the last two weekends. What's been the impetus for the Badgers' better play of late
Wisconsin has ceased to be a sieve on defense, which is nice. I think that stretch of defensive lapses boils down to attention to detail and effort. With that in mind, my new mantra is blame Canada. (Ed. Note: After the events of the last two days, we're certainly down with blaming Canada. For everything. -- Ross) The same Canadian exhibition tour that allowed the Badgers extra practice time together during the summer and helped them gel faster as a team (see: 16-0 start) may have contributed to hitting a mini-wall of sorts. The Badgers had to develop more mental toughness to survive that stretch and now they've seen what it takes to play winning basketball in this league, night in and night out. Wisconsin is better for it.
2) Sam Dekker is a pretty rare find among Wisconsin players: a standout talent who has a legitimate shot to be a first round NBA draft pick -- this year. Not that Wisconsin hasn't had some very good players under Bo, but they've tended to be of the more developmental variety; guys who put in their four years and get steadily better, becoming all-Big Ten threats as upperclassmen. Even when they've had underclassmen who've made a big impact early, they've rarely seemed to show up on NBA mock drafts. What makes Dekker such a special talent? And what odds do you give him on testing the NBA Draft waters this year?
What we're seeing this season is that Dekker actually may fall closer to that second bucket of developmental players than we thought. The factors that placed him high on draft boards coming in are things he shares with other highly-touted players: Dekker made a nice impact as a freshman and had tons of opportunity this year to put up bigger numbers with UW's starting forwards graduating. He also has decent size for a SF and enough athleticism to make some exciting plays. Plus, honestly, his style of play might be more suited to the NBA -- he excels in the open court, finding angles, cutting into gaps and making plays with his passing. Weaknesses at this point would be his lack of driving ability off the dribble and physical strength.
I'd say the chances of Dekker bolting after this season are about 5% at this point, specifically because he recently said, "people think I'm leaving or something. I'm not." While Dekker has caught fire from deep of late (10-for-19 in the past four games), guys like Chad Ford are still monitoring him to see if he can hit the outside shot consistently. Personally, I think he needs to improve his ballhandling or develop a good mid-range pull up before he jumps to the Association.
3) Frank Kaminsky has become one of the best big men in the league. Part of his improvement has come from increased opportunities -- he's playing about 2.5 times as many minutes as he did last year and his usage rates have gone up as well -- but that doesn't seem to be the whole story. His shooting has improved a lot (44% to 54% from the field, 31% to 41% from deep) and he's become a much better rebounder and shotblocker as well. So -- what gives? What the heck got into The Artist Formerly Known as Rec Specs?
Between his freshman and sophomore season, Kaminsky really worked on sculpting his body a bit more and it paid off in his limited minutes. Prior to this season, the name of the game was growing his confidence. Kaminsky has credited some of that to heeding good advice from his parents on not overthinking things on the court and also never being satisfied. You can see the confidence in his post moves, but also on his ability to get to the basket with a few dribbles. His improved three-point shooting sets it all up. Kaminsky also has a patience about him in the post, evidenced by a number of counter moves that he uses.
In the games where Kaminsky has struggled this year, it's been when he reverts back to being a more timid offensive player. If you see Frank shot-faking on wide-open three-pointers on Saturday, advantage Iowa. We've seen some of that in the last month as he's tried to fit in with Nigel Hayes effectively. Kaminsky's other weakness would be foul trouble -- he has a propensity to pick up those "but I jumped straight up!" whistles when defending the rim against quick guards.
4) Wisconsin is an impressively balanced team on offense: four guys (Dekker, Kaminsky, Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson) are each averaging over 10 ppg and two other players (Josh Gasser and Nigel Hayes) aren't too far behind (8.9 and 7.9 ppg, respectively). What's the best approach for beating Wisconsin? Have teams had success keying on certain Badgers?
I see three keys to beating Wisconsin. One is being able to contain both Hayes and Kaminsky on the block. Iowa is one team that on paper has the depth of size to do so. On the rare occasion that teams are kept off the charity stripe, Kaminsky has usually played well. The Badger that has been more easily taken away by opposing teams has been Dekker, who seems to struggle when he is checked closely by a more physical player.
To some degree, slowing Dekker does affect Wisconsin as a whole, but Traevon Jackson is the barometer of the team. Wisconsin is 1-4 in Big Ten play when Jackson's offensive efficiency rating is under 99 -- with the lone exception being the first Iowa game when he committed seven (!!) turnovers, adding to the oddity of that contest. If Iowa can force Jackson into doing too much or baiting him into a 1-on-1 duel, that would be another way to get Wisconsin out of sync. Jackson played a good game against Michigan even though his shot was off because he initiated the offense early and allowed the ball to circulate without him until he was needed.
Finally, get into the paint. Aaron White has been a thorn in Wisconsin's side throughout his career because of the way he attacks the boards and is aggressive around the hoop. Defending the pick and roll was a trouble spot for UW during their lull, and it could reappear in this game if guys like Mike Gesell or a Roy Devyn Marble can work their jumpers from 10 to 15-feet out.
5) One of the most impressive accomplishments of Bo Ryan's tenure at Wisconsin is the fact that he's never finished lower than 4th in the Big Ten. That level of consistency is staggering, particularly in college hoops, where a key injury or two or an early entrant to the NBA draft can cause fortunes to swing wildly from season-to-season. The Badgers are currently on pace to keep that streak alive this season. Where does that accomplishment rank among the feats Ryan has done at Wisconsin?
Though it's a somewhat arbitrary number, the fourth-place streak probably is the most remarkable and unique thing Ryan has accomplished at this level. However, how do you top being the winningest coach (percentage-wise) in Big Ten history?? Currently Ryan 's record is 152-65 (.700) in league playing, tied with Bob Knight and jockeying with Thad Matta on a game-by-game basis. Since Matta is up there too, though, let me point out Ryan's road record as well. Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team to have a winning record (73-68) on the road since Ryan was hired in 2001.
At a school that did not go to the NCAA Tournament once between 1947 and 1994, Ryan has (or will soon) received a bid in each of his 13 seasons, never winning less than 19 games in a season. Prior to his arrival, Wisconsin had only four 19-win seasons in program history. Back-to-back 30-win seasons were nice, too. The program's runaround in the last 20 years has been remarkable and Bo Ryan has been the biggest factor in the middle of it. Wisconsin lucked out that Ryan truly wanted this job and waited around long enough to finally get the chance.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
There is no reason to solely trust home court advantage this season, but I do sense that this game means a lot to Iowa. I still think Iowa is just about the worst matchup for Wisconsin in terms of style; the Badgers cannot get caught up in trying to play a full-court game that the Hawkeyes can do about 100x better than them. I'll give Iowa the nod by about seven points, thanks to late free throws.
Thanks for being a good sport, Phil, although I still hope your team loses by 50 tomorrow. You can check out Phil and the rest of the B5Q crew at Bucky's 5th Quarter. You can also follow Phil on Twitter at @hoopsmarinara and B5Q at @B5Q. The Iowa-Wisconsin game is in Iowa City, IA on Saturday, February 22, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from ESPN2.