It's not often that Wisconsin can be viewed as a winnable game for Penn State but here we are. The Badgers are only 10-9 on the season and are currently just a 3-point favorite tonight in Vegas. They may have won 10 of their last 11 games at the Bryce Jordan Center, but Bo Ryan and Frank Kaminsky aren't walking onto the floor this time around.
To get a better idea of what's going on with Wisconsin, we went to Phil Mitten of Bucky's 5th Quarter for some insight. I was curious what his perspective was on the cloudy future of the Wisconsin program after Bo's sudden departure, but we also talked about tonight's game and what's gone wrong for Wisconsin this season. A thank you to Phil for taking the time to answer our questions.
Black Shoe Diaries: Since the loss in last year's national championship, it seemed like Wisconsin was mired in Bo Ryan retirement rumors. This was suppose to be his last year, then he backtracked as the season got closer, but then he decided to call it quits one random Tuesday night in December. What's been the temperament among the fan base to his sudden departure? Has the majority come to accept his decision as a good-hearted attempt to give Gard a shot at the job? Or do some feel he actually quit on the team and/or left the program in a tough situation?
Bucky's 5th Quarter: A rebuilding (not reloading) season like this was going to be a tough pill to swallow either way, so Bo's retirement just adds to the circus. The dominant feeling at the time was surprise, not shock, and I think the fan base had mixed sentiments on whether it was the right move. Although it left Greg Gard in a pretty precarious position, it's understandable that Ryan believed it was the only way to guarantee his guy a real shot at the job. Seven games later, Badger fans have moved on, looking for growth with this young group and seeing if Gard can live up to the hype. Nothing but grand memories of the Bo Ryan era...
I'll add this: My new shot-in-the-dark theory is that Ryan realized that he couldn't stick to his principles as much as he'd like to with this group (regarding his rotation, subbing pattern, tolerance for turnovers, etc.) and finally admitted that maybe Gard could deal with it more comfortably, plus the added bonus of getting Gard his on-the-job tryout. As in, Bo physically couldn't bring himself to play a guy that broke lots of his rules to see the court (ahem, Jordan Hill), even though it completely eliminated his backcourt depth for the first 12 games.
BSD: Expectations certainly weren't high following the loss of so many talented players last year, but now that Bo's gone, what are the expectations for the rest of this season? Do many view this conference year as an audition for Gard, and he needs to win 'x' number of games and/or salvage an NIT berth to earn the post?
B5Q: The expectations at the beginning of the season were certainly to make the tournament for the 18th straight year. Those hopes were recalibrated long ago by most level-headed fans. Seeing steady improvement from here on out is the goal, even if it doesn't translate into a tourney bid.
Personally, I think going an unlikely 10-8 in conference should sew up the job for Gard, but no one knows if there is a magic number in Barry Alvarez's head that Gard can reach. Everyone knows he'll go after Tony Bennett and then keep Gard in mind after that. An NIT bid doesn't earn Gard anything.
BSD: From a win-loss perspective, this is Wisconsin's worst team in at least a decade, but the majority of losses have been agonizingly close. What's been the achilles' heel for this team down the stretch of those close losses?
B5Q: The Badgers typically dig themselves too big of a hole with long scoring droughts. Wisconsin is not a good shooting team (47.6 eFG%) and it compounds that fact by not getting to the free throw line often enough, Sunday's win over Michigan State notwithstanding. While they've made some good closing charges, the Badgers just don't have enough weapons offensively and miss too many bunnies or free throws earlier that bite them in the end.
BSD: This is Wisconsin's worst shooting team in the KenPom era. What's been the cause for the team's struggles in this department, specifically Nigel Hayes? The numbers suggest the Badgers aren't doing a good job creating open looks judging by the assist totals. Is Hayes truly your point guard, as KenPom's algorithm suggests?
B5Q: Hayes has certainly done a good job finding teammates from the post to rack up those assists, but he switched his shooting form in the offseason. Add that to the added defensive attention he is receiving and the burden of creating his own offense, and it's clear why his shooting percentages are down. Other factors are as simple as some recruiting misses and the fact that two of the best young shooters (freshmen Brevin Pritzl and Andy van Vliet) won't play this season due to ineligibility or injury issues. Those two guys would fill glaring outside shooting voids at reserve shooting guard and center. Another big factor is that Bronson Koenig has not really embraced how aggressive he needs to be in the absence of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, et al. Against the Spartans, you saw a glimpse of what Koenig can do when he's dialed in and coming hard off of screens, as he went for a career-high 27 points. Being so passive at times has prevented him from creating much for others.
BSD: If there's one bright spot to this year's team, it's been the play of freshman Ethan Happ. Is he another one in the long line of great Wisconsin bigs? What are the strengths/weaknesses of his game?
B5Q: Yes, I believe Happ is the next one. His strengths right now are his post moves and his nose for the basketball. His big hands help make him a great rebounder and he is stealing the ball at a rate higher than any Wisconsin starter since Trevon Hughes. Happ has to finish all the easy buckets though. He's not a great athlete, so he ends up reversing a lot underneath the hoop. Though he has gotten his early foul trouble under control, Happ still likes to slap at the ball 90 feet from the basket which is annoying, but the future is bright. Unfortunately his jump shot is non-existent, so when he develops that he will be a beast to handle.
BSD: Who's Wisconsin's coach next year? Is it simply a Gard vs. Tony Bennett decision or do you expect Alvarez to conduct a full search after the season?
B5Q: Other names I would expect Alvarez to ping would be Ben Jacobsen at Northern Iowa and Archie Miller at Dayton. I understand how it would reflect well on Wisconsin to be able to snipe Bennett or Miller, but for the program's sake, hiring anyone besides those two over Gard would be a mistake in my opinion. He brings impressive attention to detail, continuity and a name that carries weight in Wisconsin and Minnesota on the recruiting trail as well. Wish I could see the future, but that would make the present a lot less fun.
Make sure you check out Bucky's 5th Quarter for our answers to their PSU questions and their take on tonight's game.