KRUSH EDITION: Across enemy lines: Wisconsin basketball

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Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes (10) goes to the basket against Michigan State forward Matt Costello (10) during overtime in the Big Ten Men’s Tournament championship game on Sunday, March 15, at the United Center in Chicago.

By Compiled by Joey Figueroa

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sat down with Jake Powers, the sports editor of The Daily Cardinal, a student newspaper at Wisconsin, and talked about Illinois, Wisconsin and how Thursday’s game might go.

The Daily Illini: Besides the obvious drop-off from losing Kaminsky and Dekker, what has been the biggest difference for this team from last year?

Jake Powers: The smooth offensive flow that defined last year’s team simply hasn’t been there for Wisconsin. Without any deadly scorers that can be a force inside but also shoot lights-out from the perimeter, UW has struggled with improvising on offense when things start getting hectic or opposing teams keep it from running through its sets. While the Badgers have been known for years to use the entire shot clock, that’s usually meant they’re moving the ball around and creating open looks. This year, Wisconsin has been forced into more contested 3-pointers and difficult shots as time expires, which obviously throws off the flow of the game.

DI: Nigel Hayes has taken on a bigger role this season. How do you think he’s handled it?

JP: Nigel Hayes has had to take on the central role in the offense this season, and while that’s hurt his field goal percentage because of the sheer volume of shots he’s now forced take, he’s handled it decently well. He’s the type of guy who plays loose but focused, and that sort of even-keeled demeanor has helped him with the mental challenges of being the focal point of this team. His biggest improvement has been his increased per-game assist totals, and he’s been getting to the free throw line more frequently even though he’s been playing just three more minutes per game compared to last season, which is a good sign. His 25-point performance against Michigan State last week was undoubtedly his signature performance of the season, and it was a nice breakout for Hayes after a frustrating start to 2016.

DI: All of Wisconsin’s conference losses have been by six points or fewer. What’s the difference between wins and losses in those games?

JP: Wisconsin is at its best when it cuts down on 3-point shots and works the ball inside. In their conference losses, the Badgers have fallen stagnant on offense for minutes at a time and often revert to dribbling too much and taking tough shots as the shot clock winds down. Defensively, the Badgers have actually been pretty solid throughout conference play, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in points allowed per game, but the offensive droughts they can’t seem to shake have been killers.

DI: At 12th in the Big Ten, Wisconsin has had trouble scoring in conference play. What have opposing defenses been able to do to slow them down on offense?

JP: One of the key elements head coach Greg Gard has reinstalled since Bo Ryan’s retirement was the swing offense, a staple of Ryan’s teams for many years before Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker took over Madison. That slower and more deliberate system inherently reduces the Badgers’ scoring output, but there’s still more to it than that. In Wisconsin’s consecutive losses to Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern, each team clogged the lane and forced UW to shoot more from outside, where it has been poor all season long. The Badgers don’t necessarily have any prolific inside scorers, but their offense flows much better when they’re able to get the ball near the basket and work from there.

JP: While Illinois has clearly struggled defensively, Wisconsin simply doesn’t have the weapons, particularly from beyond the arc, to take full advantage of the Illini’s deficiencies. The Badgers lack length, and while Illinois isn’t particularly strong in that department either, I think the Illinois big men will find they have more room to work with on the inside than they typically would against other Big Ten teams.

Compiled by Joey Figueroa.