By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON – With 16 games in the books, and 15 more to go in the regular season, we take a look back at the first half of the Badgers season.
MVP: Josh Gasser
He doesn’t lead the Badgers in any statistical category but ask anyone what the difference is between this year’s team and last year’s and they’ll point to the junior guard. He makes an impact when he's scoring and when he’s not. The toughness that the 2012-13 team lacked when Gasser missed the season with a knee injury has returned in this year’s bunch. He’s been counted on to guard the other team’s top offensive weapon – sometimes going against guys that are significantly bigger than him. It may seem cliché, but Gasser is the glue that keeps everything together and his return can’t be overstated.
Top newcomer: Nigel Hayes
Through 11 games the freshman from Toledo, Ohio, was averaging just four points per game and was rarely getting to the free throw line (21 attempts). But beginning with Eastern Kentucky, Hayes has come alive on the offensive end. He’s averaging 13 points per game, has scored in double figures in four of the last five contests and has gone to the free throw line 45 times. Hayes is on a path towards putting together one of the best true freshman seasons in the Bo Ryan-era.
Best individual performance: Frank Kaminsky vs North Dakota
The junior had never scored more than 16 points in a game when North Dakota came calling early in the season. He had more than that in the first half (21 points) and finished with a school-record 43 points. He was a perfect 6 of 6 from 3-point range and 16 of 19 overall. His big night came on the heels of scoring 14 points in the second half of a win over Green Bay and has propelled him for the rest of the season – a season in which he has scored in double figures 11 times.
Best game: No. 4 Wisconsin 75, No. 22 Iowa 71 (Jan. 5, 2013)
Wisconsin was faced with their biggest challenge yet when Iowa came to town. The Hawkeyes took an 11-point lead into the break but the Badgers answered in the first 10 minutes of the second half. They had gotten the lead down to two when Iowa coach Fran McCaffery lost his mind. Upset with officiating, McCaffery went after one of the officials – he said on purpose – and picked up a technical foul. He continued his tirade and bumped another official and was tossed from the game. Ben Brust hit the four technical free throws and Wisconsin didn’t trail the rest of the game, though they certainly weren’t out of the woods. The Badgers were up by one when Sam Dekker grabbed an offensive rebound, tossed it out to Josh Gasser who gave it back to Dekker on the wing and he drilled a 3-pointer. Wisconsin escaped to move to 15-0.
Biggest positive: Ability to beat teams in a variety of ways
Wisconsin has won games while scoring in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and over 100. And they’ve done it against pretty good competition. Their strength of schedule is in the Top 10 in the country. They can beat you in many ways and in Big Ten play five guys are averaging in double figures. They don’t turn the ball over (8.2 per game) and have made more free throws (272) than their opponents have taken (225) – both indicators of a good team.
Biggest concern: Rebounding/Lack of size
Coming into the season Wisconsin was concerned about how they would matchup on the boards with a lineup that normally consists of three guards. For much of the season they've been OK but they gave up 16 and 25 offensive rebounds against Iowa and Illinos, respectively.Ryan was less than pleased with that after the win over the Illini and it certainly will be a focus moving forward. Also, how will the Badgers matchup against teams that can throw multiple big men at them? And can Zach Bohannon, Evan Andersen and Vitto Brown help out when Frank Kaminsky and Hayes get into foul trouble?
Best game left on the schedule: vs Michigan State (Feb. 9, 2014)
You can go so many ways with this. Certainly Ohio State coming to Madison on Feb. 1 and the Badgers trip to take on Iowa on Feb. 22 are noteworthy. But I’m going with the visit from Michigan State on Feb. 9. The game will most certainly have ramifications on the Big Ten race and will be the only time the two teams play each other in the regular season. And though the relationship between Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo has gotten better in recent years, sparks normally fly when those two matchup. Add in the fact that Michigan State has won the last two times in Madison and it makes for a very intriguing game.
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin