Wisconsin’s weird season took a turn upward Wednesday night as the Badgers halted No. 14 Syracuse’s undefeated run by defeating the Orange in the Carrier Dome 66-58.
Big man Ethan Happ had a huge day for the Badgers, getting 18 points and 15 rebounds. Nigel Hayes helped out with 15 points, 12 rebounds and six assists of his own. Overall, this win brings Bo Ryan’s group to 5-3 with wins over VCU and Syracuse in neutral or road settings and a home loss to Western Illinois.
Here are the three things to know about this game.
1. Wisconsin’s defense finally looked up to the task
In its first seven games of the season, the Badgers’ defense had been a nightmare. During Bo Ryan’s tenure, it’s fair to say that defense has been a priority, with four top-10 finishes in adjusted defensive rating according to KenPom. However, this season Wisconsin was sitting 202nd nationally in unadjusted defensive rating, giving up 104.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s 3.5 points worse than their worst mark ever under Ryan (101.2 in 2011).
Wisconsin’s defense was much better in this one against what had been a pretty potent offense to this point. It did a much better job of contesting jump shots, allowing Syracuse to only shoot 35.7 percent from the field. Almost equally as important, it only allowed the Orange to grab offensive rebounds six times, 14.9 percent of their opportunities. Coming into the contest, Wisconsin had been allowing opponents to grab offensive rebounds on 30 percent of their chances, which had been a major issue. That led Wisconsin to a defensive rating of 82.8 in this one, their best effort of the season.
If the Badgers can continue to show this defensive growth, they’ll be a much different and overall better team.
2. The Badgers also finally got some secondary scoring help
Even though Wisconsin only had one point from its three bench players, the three support players around Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig in the starting lineup stepped up in a big way.
As mentioned above, Happ was a big part of that with his impressive performance. He and Hayes owned the defensive glass, and Happ himself chipped in with eight field goals. Vitto Brown was also pretty important, especially in the first half. He scored 14 on 6-of-9 shooting and looked like a competent starter against a tough opponent for the first time this season. Finally, Zak Showaler chipped in with six points.
The 38 total points that those three combined for is the most they’ve put up in a single game this season, and it couldn’t have come at a more important time for the Badgers following their blowout loss against Oklahoma. The inconsistency thus far from those three has been a pretty big issue for the Badgers, but this was a massive game for that group around its two stars.
3. Syracuse’s freshmen finally came back down to earth
But that was to be expected at some point, right? I mean, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon had been terrific, but even the best freshmen hit a wall eventually. In this one, the two combined to score 12 points and shoot 5 of 17. They just couldn’t give Michael Gbinije the help he required to get the win, as he had a solid 19-point, five-assist, five-steal outing.
Overall though, this has still been an absolutely terrific start for the Orange. They are now 6-1 with a pair of really nice wins over Texas A&M and Connecticut, and should have smooth sailing to the ACC regular season following their game this weekend against Georgetown. If the Orange can pick up that win, they’ll have done as strong a job as they could have been expected to in the nonconference season to set themselves up for a really nice seed line in the NCAA Tournament.