Before getting into our in-depth preview of Purdue-Wisconsin tomorrow Phil Mitten of Bucky's 5th Quarter contacted us for a Q&A session. You can find my answers here, but this is what Phil had to say about the Badgers:
T-Mill: How are you guys dealing with this year where Wisconsin lost a lot of talent and you had a surprise coaching change?
Phil: Most fans' emotions probably alternate between surprise and the feelings of a parent whose patience is being tested by a child. Despite a few holdovers, struggles were expected from this team that lost five key contributors from last season's Big Ten champs. When you add the coaching change and the inexperienced players being asked to step up, the newness of the situation is definitely keeping everyone on their toes. The thrill of dominance has been replaced with the excitement of the unpredictability.
T-Mill: What is the assessment of Greg Gard so far? Why did Bo Ryan leave so suddenly?
Phil: With only one game under his belt, it's hard to judge how the program is different under Gard. The first game showed a faster pace (due to the record number of turnovers unfortunately), a slightly deeper rotation and a bit more emphasis on the Swing offense. To a large degree Gard is just an extension of Bo Ryan, having assisted Ryan for 23 years. Nevertheless, a Hall of Fame coach commands a different level of respect than a career assistant and that transition could pose a minor challenge for the players as Gard molds the program to his preferences.
Unless something comes to light to contradict what we've heard so far, I think Ryan had grown weary of the increased off-the-court demands of the job and was ready to retire this off-season after the Duke loss. The desire to give Gard a decent audition for the job definitely played a role, as did Gard's father's health. Of course, Ryan's media relations skills have never been described as smooth, so the actual execution left a lot to be desired.
T-Mill: This has not been a great year for Wisconsin basketball. What has been its biggest problem?
Phil: The two returning starters, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, have not responded consistently to being the focus of opposing defenses. Hayes is probably the most effective at getting into the lane, but once there, he is double-teamed (or even triple-teamed) with no one dangerous to kick out to. Opponent can easily stick with Koenig and still pack the lane because the Badgers lack a well-rounded guard to pair with Koenig. Koenig and Hayes, both juniors, have forced plenty of shots and dribble penetration already this season to overcompensate for the lack of experience and talent around them.
T-Mill: Wisconsin looks like an atrocious shooting team despite having good offensive balance. What gives?
Phil: The Badgers are an atrocious shooting team most of the time. From the young big guys missing layups to the lack of a complementary three-point shooter, as discussed above, Wisconsin is just too easy to defend right now. The Badgers take way too many long two-pointers, aka "the worst shot in basketball," which Bo Ryan was always adamant about limiting. Some recruiting missteps and plain old bad luck prevented Wisconsin from making the usual "plug-and-play" adjustments in the offseason. Promising freshmen shooting guard Brevin Pritzl has been hurt all year and Andy van Vliet, the "Belgian Kaminsky," was ruled ineligible. You really appreciate what a luxury Frank Kaminsky was the past few years when you look at this year's team. Kaminsky's replacement, Ethan Happ, does not have any range outside the paint, and the first three guys off the bench are true freshmen in much the same boat. This puts more pressure on Koenig and Hayes to be the three-point threats along with everything else they do.
T-Mill: Is there hope for any kind of a recovery in Big Ten play with the rest of the conference, aside from Purdue, Maryland, and Michigan State looking jumbled?
Phil: There's a glimmer of hope, but I'm not holding my breath. Picking up nine wins to break even in conference would be a great accomplishment based on the schedule and what I've seen so far. Not only do the games against the heavyweights look like an automatic six losses, but Wisconsin only plays Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State and Rutgers once each. With the team's inexperience, playing a full 40 minutes of disciplined, confident basketball on both ends of the court will be a challenge, so sadly even those games aren't gimmes anymore -- hell, Wisconsin lost to Rutgers last year. Teams will obviously smell blood in the water with Wisconsin reloading and will come into the Kohl Center expecting to win this year. So regaining confidence is a must for the Badgers to go on any run in the Big Ten. That starts with the team's leaders making the players around them better.
T-Mill: Who should Purdue fear in Madison?
Phil: Hayes is the most talented Badger and still the most capable of exploiting mismatches. Though his shooting has been worse thanks to a reworked jump shot, he's taken another step forward with his passing and ballhandling this year, allowing him to play a bit of a point forward role from the wing. Hayes leads UW in assists and leads the Big Ten in both minutes and free throw attempts.
I think this game will be a real eye-opener for Happ, the slender 6'9" redshirt freshman who has showed good potential as Wisconsin's third wheel, especially on the glass. We'll see how he responds against the monstrous Purdue frontcourt.
T-Mill: Finally, do you have a prediction?
Phil: I'd take Purdue big in this one, 68-56. Based on the final 10 minutes in their last game, I'd say the Badgers are still adjusting to the new era. They've had trouble scoring all year, which is playing right to Purdue's strength.