The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team jumped 10 spots to No. 12 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll.
The Badgers (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) moved up after a big week that included a 79-75 home win over North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a 72-66 win at then-No. 14 Iowa in a Big Ten opener on Friday night.
UW returns to action on Monday night with a game against Rutgers (5-2, 0-1) at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers are one of seven Big Ten teams in the poll: Michigan is at No. 4, Michigan State at No. 10, Iowa at No. 18, Ohio State at No. 19, Maryland at No. 23 and Nebraska at No. 24. Purdue is the first team in the receiving votes category.
After playing Rutgers, the Badgers will close the week with a game at Marquette (6-2). The Golden Eagles are in the 28th spot in this week’s AP poll.
Rutgers has registered 12 consecutive losing seasons since going 20-13 in 2003-04.
Is this the year that drought ends? It’s doubtful considering how deep the Big Ten appears to be this season, but the Scarlet Knights are getting better under Steve Pikiell.
One sign of that progress came last week when Rutgers won 57-54 at Miami (Fla.) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Scarlet Knights couldn’t build on that momentum, dropping a 78-67 decision to No. 9 Michigan State at home on Friday night, but they certainly didn’t make life easy for the visiting Spartans.
“The culture is established now,” said UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft, who prepared the scouting report on the Scarlet Knights. “It’s been three years and he’s done a great job. They’re tough, they play hard and every possession they don’t quit.”
Rutgers is No. 19 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency category. The Scarlet Knights allowed four points in the first half of their 63-36 win over Eastern Michigan on Nov. 19 – that’s not a misprint – and held Miami to 33.8 percent shooting.
The numbers aren’t nearly as good on the other end of the court – Rutgers is No. 251 in adjusted offensive efficiency as of Monday morning – but Krabbenhoft said he sees improvement.
“Their calling card has always been defense – I think it still is – but offensively they’re really doing a nice job of spreading you out a little bit more,” he said.
One thing is for sure: Rutgers is shooting the 3-pointer better. It has consistently been poor in that area, finishing between 230th and 346th nationally over the past six seasons. The high-water mark during that stretch was 32.2 percent from beyond the arc in 2015-16.
This season, the Scarlet Knights are at 36.9 percent. They have four legitimate perimeter threats: junior forward Eugene Omoruyi (45.5 percent), sophomore guard Geo Baker (45.0), junior forward Issa Thiam (42.4) and sophomore guard Peter Kiss (39.4), a transfer from Quinnipiac.
Baker is the catalyst on offense, but Omoruyi’s emergence on that end of the court has been notable.
Omoruyi didn’t make a 3-pointer his first two seasons on campus, going 0 of 16 from beyond the arc. He’s 10 of 22 through the first seven games this season.
“It’s not just 3s though, he’s hitting jumpers, he’s making plays off the bounce,” Krabbenhoft said of Omoruyi, who’s averaging a team-leading 15.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. “He’s obviously worked hard on his game and presents a good challenge.”
Krabbenhoft raved about Omoruyi’s play on defense.
“People will talk about the (offensive) numbers and the production is way up. He’s obviously worked really hard to get to that point, but he’s still the heart and soul just with his effort and energy,” Krabbenhoft said. “I’d love to see a stat, who’s taken or at least attempted to take more charges, him or Brad (Davison). I think Omoruyi might have him beat. That just shows you the type of player he is because we know what Brad is. He’s a guy willing to do whatever it takes.”
Rutgers is averaging 13.1 offensive rebounds per game, which is second in the Big Ten behind Purdue (13.3).
Most of that production has come from freshman Miles Johnson (19), senior Shaquille Doorson (17) and Omoruyi (17). Those three players measure 6-10, 7-foot and 6-7, respectively.
That’s something to watch on Monday night because the Badgers have struggled to limit second-chance opportunities at times this season.
Iowa scored 15 second-chance points on Friday night. So did North Carolina State three days earlier. In all, UW has allowed double figures in that category in four of its eight games.
“Some of it has been blockout responsibility, some of it has been there have times where the ball has bounced just where we couldn’t get it,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “We have to continue to be a better, more consistent rebounding team and that’s not only falling on the bigs. That falls on the perimeter guys, too, of making sure we’re rebounding through the elbows and cleaning up some of the batted balls or erratic shots that come off the rim, that we have five guys engaged in going after that.”
Senior center Ethan Happ is averaging 11.6 rebounds per game. Senior forward Khalil Iverson is next at 5.4.
The Badgers need players such as sophomore forwards Nate Reuvers (2.1) and Aleem Ford (1.4) to do more on the glass.
“Nate boxes out really well, but he’s got to continue to improve on chasing them after he boxes out,” Krabbenhoft said.
The Badgers’ defensive numbers are very good to start the season. Imagine what they’d look like if they could do a better job keeping teams from getting second looks.
“If you’re going to be a good defensive team, (even) a decent defensive team, you’ve got to block out and rebound,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. “That’s how you finish the possession and that’s how you get a stop.”
UW has used its share of smaller lineups this season, but nobody in the program is using that as an excuse for not getting the job done on the glass.
It has to be a group effort. Sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice grabbed a career-high seven rebounds at Iowa, while junior guard Brevin Pritzl also came down with some rebounds at key times.
Moore said size shouldn’t be a factor “because the fundamentals of blocking out goes across the board whether you’re playing the 1 or the 5. Guys have to make sure they at least check their man off. You may not get the rebound, but make sure he doesn’t get it as well.”
There was a lot to get to in the story I did on UW freshman point guard Tai Strickland that ran in Monday’s paper. Here are some interesting things that were left out of the story.
— Strickland’s three finalists when choosing a college were UW, Rutgers and Minnesota. Ultimately, Strickland said, the Scarlet Knights finished in second place.
Does that make Monday’s game any different for Strickland?
“I really wouldn’t say anything special other than it’s a Big Ten game, so there’s a lot more on the line,” he said. “I spent time with those coaches, I got to know those coaches, got to know the players, so I feel like they have a good idea about my game. But then again, I did a lot of research on them and how they played and see their fit for me, so I feel like it goes both ways.”
— One of the challenges for younger players that was addressed in the story is the uncertainty of playing time. Another is going back and forth between the scout team and main team in practice.
Strickland spends time learning the opponent’s plays and tendencies. Then, at some point in practice, Gard beckons him over to the main group, where he has to master UW’s plays and rules on defense.
“It’s definitely something you have to adjust to,” Strickland said. “You just have to have the switch in your brain. You turn over to the white jersey, you’ve got to flip the white switch on. Going back to scout, you flip the scout switch on
“I think it helps, to be honest. Scout team, you get a little more freedom – well, a lot more freedom. And you get confidence. Going against the first-team guys, if you’re scoring on them, defending well on them, then that gives you confidence that, ‘OK, I can do this on the first team, too, against the scout team.’ ”
— Strickland admitted he should have slowed down and used a jump stop before crashing into Iowa’s Luka Garza for a charge during his brief time on the court at Iowa. He’s still getting used to not only the speed of the game but the size of the players at this level.
“In high school, I could get away with it because I was faster, stronger and jumped higher than almost everybody,” Strickland said. “Now guys are 7-feet and they’re already two feet above you when they put their hands up.”
It’s all part of the learning curve for Strickland.