Game 24 Preview and Predictions: Wisconsin at Nebraska

Caleb King’s (@calebking_2) Preview: The Wisconsin Badgers continue their Big Ten conference season and travel to Lincoln, Nebraska tonight for a matchup with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The game is slated to begin at 8pm at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Coming into tonight’s game, Nebraska is 11-13 overall and 4-7 in Big Ten play after their impressive 3-0 start to the conference season.

The year has been a roller coaster year for the Huskers, and most of that has been downhill. They started off their Big Ten season beating Indiana, Maryland, and Iowa, who all have impressive victories thus far this season. Since then, they’ve fallen in each of their conference contests except for a very impressive victory over the Purdue Boilermakers by a margin of three points at home. They now sit 12th out of 14 teams in the conference. If there’s anything to note about this Nebraska team, it is that they’re a much better team at home than on the road. Remember the Huskers upset the Badgers last season in the Big Ten tournament’s first round. Nebraska is as unpredictable as they come this year, and there’s no easy game on the road in the Big Ten, so you can bet tonight will be interesting in one way or another.

Nebraska only has two players that have started every game for them this season, so we can see right there that there is a lot of inconsistency from the start with this team. The two that have started every game thus far are no doubt their two leaders in Tai Webster and Michael Jacobsen. Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr. lead the charge offensively as they average 18.0ppg and 13.9ppg respectively. Webster also leads his team in assists as he averages 4.1apg. The Huskers are also a very active team on the boards as they have three players who average at least 5 boards per game (Tai Webster 5, Ed Morrow Jr 7.9, and Michael Jacobsen 6.8). Ed Morrow Jr also averages 10.1 ppg for the Huskers.

The Badgers come into tonight’s contest ranked #7 in the nation, and sit atop the Big Ten standings with a 20-3 record overall, 9-1 in Big Ten contests with their only blemish coming at the hands of the Purdue Boilermakers on January 8th.

If I had to choose one word to describe this Badgers team, I’d say “HOT”. This Badgers side under Coach Greg Gard has only lost one game since Thanksgiving, and that was to a sharp-shooting, inside-dominating Purdue Boilermaker side in West Lafayette. Since then, the Badgers have taken care of business, no matter how ugly it might’ve been, they have found a way to win. A big part of that has been due to the outstanding performances of redshirt Sophomore Ethan Happ.

Happ has emerged as the star of this Badgers team, hands down, no questions asked. 

When Happ arrived on campus for his freshman year, which he redshirted, Vitto Brown was quoted saying that “Ethan was one of the softest guys we’d ever met.” In that recent interview Vitto said he and his fellow housemates with Happ sat him down and, for lack of a better way to put it, told him to “Man-Up” because sooner or later all the stars would be gone and it would be his program to lead.

This same Ethan Happ, just two years later, is leading the 7th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in points (14.7ppg), rebounds (9.1rpg), blocks (1.1bpg), and steals (2.0spg) and is ANYTHING but soft. Happ recently said “It’s awesome to come from a small school, have dreams of playing in college, just getting on the court, and now I’m one of the like top three or four people on a team that’s first in the Big Ten. I think that’s amazing. I really do.”

Well Ethan, I think we can all agree you’re the top guy so far on this top-tem Wisconsin Badgers team this season.

Jay Bilas recently tweeted that, in his mind, Happ is the leading candidate for National Defensive Player of the Year, and that nobody is as good of a defender as he is. In another recent interview, Happ reveals why he seems to be particularly strong on the defensive side of the ball: Football. His prevailing strategy: ‘bat the quarterback and pounce on mistakes.’

“I would try to make him think, if he throws it over here, it’s open,” Ethan says. “Then all of a sudden I jump the route. And then pick-six.”

This is something Happ continues to use defending players today. He’ll try to position himself so that passers believe they have a chance to feed the post; then he watches and times his attack. The 6’10” Sophomore is pretty good at it. Brown said that earlier it used to be “Oh, Ethan’s on me, time to attack.” But now he’s a “master thief out there. He’s got a knack for reaching at the right time and knowing how to make guys uncomfortable. It’s amazing.” Yes, yes it is Vitto.

As clutch as Ethan has been for the Badgers thus far, he isn’t the only guy out there for this tenacious, dangerous Wisconsin team. Alongside Happ, are two of college basketball’s most accomplished players so far in their careers in Seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. The luxury of being able to say that Bronson and Nigel are arguably your 2nd and 3rd best players is coveted by many, many teams in the nation.

Bronson has been having himself quite the spurt of games. He’s been hitting deep daggers late in games to seal victories for the Badgers, particularly at Minnesota and at Rutgers, but also getting hot in the other games as well. There isn’t another guy in the nation I’d rather have taking the last shot than Bronson, there’s ice in his veins and if you can get him in a catch-and-shoot situation, watch out. Bronson is putting up some impressive numbers on a successful Badgers team that has only three losses so far this season. He’s averaging 14.0ppg and shooting .392 from the 3-point line to go along with 2.2apg and 2.3rpg.

Nigel has also had himself a nice Senior campaign so far. The Senior forward is the Badgers key to dicing up a zone defense. It is a wonder to me why any teams try a zone defense against the Badgers. Each and every time a team has showed zone, Nigel goes to the high post and either gets a high quality look himself or more often he will facilitate from the dangerous high post area to his open teammates who find pockets in the zone. It’s a glorious thing to watch. When Nigel isn’t living on the 3-point line he is thriving in the lane and driving into defenders and getting to the line. As of late, Ethan and Nigel have been doing a phenomenal job of getting the opposing team into foul trouble and getting to the line. Their free throws still aren’t as good as we would like them to be, but they’re starting to pay dividends as a game wears on.

Tonight the Badgers take on a very inconsistent Huskers side, and you can bet that a theme for Coach Gard tonight will be consistency. If the Badgers stick to their game plan and run their offense efficiently, along with keeping Tai Webster at bay on the defensive side of the ball, you can bet that this game will be no challenge for the Badgers in Lincoln. I’d imagine that Zak Showalter will have Webster for a majority of the game tonight, and Nigel and Bronson will also take their turns as well I’m sure. Webster is great at scoring and facilitating, and a majority of Nebraska’s points come from him either scoring or facilitating. I’m anxious to see how Wisconsin will defend him tonight, because that will no doubt be a crucial aspect to this game. Like I said before, no Big Ten road game is easy, so the Badgers will have to be on their “A” game tonight to knock off a streaky Nebraska side.

My Player-To-Watch tonight is Junior forward Vitto Brown. Vitto has struggled a bit the past couple of games and tonight I see a prime opportunity for Vitto to get back on track and play some quality minutes and hit some big shots. The Huskers are very active defensively, but Vitto could be a huge key to opening up the Badgers offense tonight if he can get going from the 3-point line. When Vitto is dangerous from the outside, the Badgers are incredibly dangerous all over the court.

King’s Prediction: BADGERS 72 Nebraska 57 (King is 14-3 on the season)

As Always, #OnWisconsin

Ben Thorson’s (@benjthorson) Prediction: BADGERS 66 Nebraska 57 (Thorson is 20-2 on the season)

2016-17 Big Ten Basketball Preview

Big Ten play begins tonight as InsideWisconsin insiders Caleb King and Ben Thorson breakdown the Big Ten and its top players to watch as conference play begins.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding this Big Ten season per usual, as three conference teams find themselves in the AP-Top 25. Wisconsin leads the way with an 11-2 record and are currently ranked 14th in the country; as Purdue, also 11-2, follows at number 15, and Indiana is the 16th ranked team in the land after a 10-2 non-conference record.

Here is a list of opening conference games for all B1G Teams:

Tuesday, December 27th (CT):

Northwestern at Penn State (2:00pm, ESPN2)

Illinois at Maryland (4:00pm, ESPN2)

Rutgers at 14 Wisconsin (6:00pm, ESPN2)

Michigan State at Minnesota (8:00pm, ESPN2)

Wednesday, December 28th (CT): 

Nebraska at 16 Indiana (5:30pm, BTN)

Iowa at 15 Purdue (7:30pm, BTN)

Sunday, January 1st (CT):

Michigan at Iowa (1:15pm, BTN)

Ohio State at Illinois (6:00pm, BTN)

And here is a breakdown of each team during non-conference play, and the top players to watch for in the upcoming months:

The Heavyweights:

Indiana (10-2)

Top Victories: Kansas (12 in RPI), North Carolina (15)

Top Players: James Blackmon Jr. (18.5ppg 5.4rpg), OG Anunoby (12.0ppg 6.3 rpg 1.7bpg), Thomas Bryant (12.0ppg 7.8rpg 1.5bpg)

Indiana has the two most impressive wins amongst Big Ten teams in non-conference play as they defeated Kansas and North Carolina. They also have one of the worst losses as they were defeated by Fort Wayne. Can the Hoosiers be consistent enough over the next 18 games to win the Big Ten?

Wisconsin (11-2)

Top Victory: Georgetown (59)

Top Players: Nigel Hayes (13.5ppg 5.8rpg 3.4apg), Bronson Koenig (14.6ppg 2.3rpg 2.1apg), Ethan Happ (12.9ppg 9.5rpg 2.8apg 1.5spg)

Wisconsin is the most experienced team entering 2017 as their senior class has an 11-3 record in the NCAA Tournament, including two trips to the Final Four. Can Greg Gard get his offensive efficiency to where it was in 2015? If so, the Badgers will be the favorites in a congested Big Ten.

Purdue (11-2)

Top Victory: Auburn (42)

Top Players: Caleb Swanigan (18.3ppg 12.5rpg 3.0apg), Isaac Haas (14.3ppg 5.2rpg), Vince Edwards (11.8ppg 5.2rpg 3.8apg)

Purdue boasts one of the best front courts in the country with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Many will argue that Swanigan is the top player in the conference, as the sophomore dominated non-conference play with 18.3 points per game and 12.5 rebounds. The Boilermakers are the stiffest challenge day-in and day-out in the conference. Will this lead to the Big Ten crown?

The Contenders:

Michigan (10-3)

Top Victory: SMU (49)

Top Players: Zak Irvin (14.1ppg 4.9rpg 3.5apg), Derrick Walton Jr. (12.4ppg 4.0rpg 3.8apg)

Senior guard Zak Irvin is off to an impressive start this season as he leads the Wolverines with 14.1ppg. Michigan is loaded with talent but lack consistency. Michigan dominated Marquette and Southern Methodist, but struggled in blowout losses to UCLA and South Carolina. Avoiding losses to Michigan, may be the key for the heavyweights to separate themselves from the pack.

Ohio State (10-3)

Top Victory: Providence (37)

Top Players: Jae’Sean Tate (14.3ppg 6.8rpg), Trevor Thompson (10.7ppg 9.2rpg 1.8bpg)

The Buckeyes are similar to Michigan, the talent is evident, but will the talent show up every night? So far this season, the Buckeyes have a head-scratching loss to Florida Atlantic, while hanging tough in defeats to UCLA and Virginia.

Michigan State (8-5)

Top Victory: Wichita St. (87)

Top Players: Miles Bridges (16.6ppg 8.8rpg 1.5bpg), Eron Harris (13.4ppg 3.8rpg), Nick Ward (13.2ppg 6.4rpg 1.9bpg)

The Spartans had a brutal non-conference slate that include four games, all losses, against RPI top-25 opponents. Freshman Miles Bridges was leading Michigan State thru its first nine contests with 16.6ppg and 8.8rpg before suffering an ankle injury. Can the young Spartans rebound from a shaky start?

Maryland (12-1)

Top Victory: Oklahoma St. (41)

Top Players: Melo Trimble (17.9ppg 3.1rpg 2.9apg 1.2spg) Justin Jackson (10.8ppg 6.0rpg)

When you think Maryland, you think Melo Trimble, and the guard is back for his senior season and is averaging 17.9ppg. Maryland had the 54th ranked non-conference schedule with their only defeat coming to Pittsburgh, 59-73. With Trimble in the lineup, Maryland always has a chance to win.

The Bubble Teams:

Minnesota (12-1)

Top Victory: Arkansas (16)

Top Players: Nate Mason (13.2ppg 3.2rpg 5.5apg 1.2spg), Amir Coffey (11.9ppg 3.6rpg 2.8apg)

Minnesota may be the biggest question mark in all of the Big Ten. The Gophers are currently ranked 8th in the RPI after playing the 32nd-ranked non-conference schedule. Nate Mason is making himself a household name throughout the Big Ten and Amir Coffey has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. The Gophers lost their only road game during non-conference play, a 67-75 loss at Florida State.

Northwestern (11-2)

Top Victory: Wake Forest (19)

Top Players: Scottie Lindsey (14.9ppg 4.3rpg 3.2apg) Vic Law (13.7ppg 5.2rpg) Bryant McIntosh (12.2ppg 2.4rpg 5.5apg)

Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament, but with the leadership of junior Bryan McIntosh, the Wildcats are poised to make a run. Wins against Wake Forest (19th in RPI) and Dayton (53) are good starts to the resume.

Illinois (10-3)

Top Victory: VCU (35)

Top Players: Malcolm Hill (18.4ppg 6.3rpg 2.2apg), Leron Black (11.7ppg 6.7rpg)

Senior Malcom Hill is an explosive scorer, he already dropped 40 against Northern Kentucky this season. But what happens to the Fighting Illini when Hill is shut down? They couldn’t overcome it in non-conference losses to West Virginia, Florida State, and Winthrop.

Iowa (8-5)

Top Victory: Northern Iowa (103)

Top Players: Peter Jok (22.6ppg 6.2rpg 2.2apg 1.2spg), Tyler Cook (13.7ppg 5.3rpg)

Senior Peter Jok leads the conference with 22.6 points per game and he will make any game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena a headache for his opponents. This was already proven in a 78-64 victory over Iowa State. The Hawkeyes began their season with five losses in their first eight games, but are currently riding a 5-game win streak.

The Cinderella’s:

Rutgers (11-2)

Top Victory: Drexel (147)

Top Players: Nigel Johnson (12.7ppg 4.3rpg 3.1apg), Deshawn Freeman (12.2ppg 9.5rpg)

Rutgers is off to impressive start after only winning seven games in 2015-16. But their top non-conference win came against RPI ranked 147 Drexel. The improvement is evident, but we still only expect a handful of wins for the Knights.

Penn State (8-5)

Top Victory: George Washington (120)

Top Players: Shep Garner (14.6ppg 2.8rpg 3.1apg 1.5spg), Mike Watkins (10.5ppg 8.4rpg 3.3bpg)

Penn State has received solid play from junior Shep Garner and freshman Mike Watkins in the early going. The Nittany Lions hung tough with top-ranked Duke in an early season tilt that was decided by 10 points. Can PSU upset one of the contenders in the Bryce Jordan Center?

Nebraska (6-6)

Top Victory: Dayton (53)

Top Players: Tai Webster (17.0ppg 5.1rpg 4.0apg 1.1spg), Glynn Watson Jr. (12.6ppg 3.0rpg 2.8apg 1.9spg), Ed Morrow (10.3ppg 8.4rpg)

The Cornhuskers stumbled their way through a non-conference slate that included three games against ranked opponents. Nebraska is led by senior guard Tai Webster who averaged 17.0 points per game including a pair of 23-point nights against Louisiana Tech and Virginia Tech.

Which players and teams will surprise in the upcoming Big Ten hoops season? And which team will prevail as the Big Ten regular season champion? Share your opinions in the comments below or on twitter @InsideWisconsin.