Madison, WI – As an assistant coach last season when Wisconsin posted an overtime victory over Syracuse, current Badgers Head Coach Greg Gard had a courtside look at the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense that Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim has employed with great success over most of his highly successful 41-year run as the Orange head coach.
Gard took what he learned from last year’s game to put together an even more focused plan of attack for this year’s game that put his Badgers in all the right places as they stretched out a four-point halftime lead to beat the Orange 77-60 in Madison, Wisconsin on Tuesday night.
Gard positioned 6-8 Vitto Brown at the top of the circle, guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter at the wings, 6-8 Nigel Hayes at the free throw line and 6-10 Ethan Happ along the baseline. Passing over the shorter Syracuse guards, Brown routinely found Hayes open along the free throw line. As the Syracuse defense pinched in on Hayes, the Wisconsin senior and preseason player of the year in the Big Ten would then either dump the ball down to Happ in the paint or swing the ball to Koenig on the wing for open looks at the rim for both teammates. “We shared the ball extremely well,” said Gard. “Our plan was to try to touch Nigel at the free throw line and let him facilitate from there.”
The plan worked to near perfection as Hayes recorded 10 assists as part of posting a double-double with 11 rebounds. He flirted with a triple-double with nine points. “Nigel is a multi-dimensional player whose ability to pass and vision get overlooked,” said Gard. “He’s trending in the right direction.”
“I thought Wisconsin really moved the ball,” said Boeheim. “Our defense was not good the whole game. We just didn’t cover the shooters.”
Forgoing the temptation to put his name in the NBA draft last spring and returning for his senior season, Hayes had gotten off to a slow start in the first seven games of the season. Entering the game shooting 41 percent from the field and 29 percent from behind the three-point arc, Hayes was averaging 11.6 points per game, more than a four-point drop from his 2015-16 average.
In making only 4-of-11 shots against the Orange, all inside the arc, Hayes did little to address his shooting struggles. But by making good decisions upon the catch and placing the ball in the shooting pockets of his teammates, Hayes lifted the play of his teammates and helped the Badgers to a number of open looks as they ended the night shooting 49 percent from the field and 48 percent from distance. His ten assists were only eight fewer than the 18 he had recorded in the Badgers’ first seven games.
“I like to pass more than score,” said Hayes. “I feel like after four years people should have caught on to that by now.”
A majority of Hayes’ assists went to Happ, a preseason all-Big Ten first team selection who brought a gaudy 66 shooting percentage into the game and improved that mark to 69 percent by connecting on 10-of-12 field goal attempts in scoring a game-high 24 points. “He’s our inside presence,” said Hayes. “But the way they (Syracuse) played that zone today, it is imperative that he works like he does and he’s ready at a moment’s notice to catch the ball and finish strong. He did a great job of that.”
At 6-10 with good length, Happ worked mostly along the Badgers’ left short baseline corner and left low block. As the Syracuse zone lifted to cover Hayes receiving a pass at the free throw line, Hayes would face up and dump a pass down to Happ, often times now stationed behind the back line of the Syracuse defense. Happ finished quickly and sometimes above the rim when the opportunity arose, but when the defense reacted to prevent a straight line scoring opportunity, Happ was also effective slithering along the baseline to score on the other side of the rim as the Syracuse bigs scrambled to guard him.
“Ethan was effective, he was efficient and he’s very good around the rim,” said Gard. “He was the recipient of his teammates doing a good job and he was getting the ball in a lot of favorable areas. Ethan is a consistent low post threat. He’s becoming better because his confidence is growing and this is a step in the right direction in his maturity.”
“It’s Nigel, that’s what it is really,” said Happ in deflecting credit for his big night. “If you watch the tape, it’s him getting me the ball.”
“He had 18 points against us last year,” said Boeheim of Happ, a cousin of Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ “We’re just not doing a great job covering him down there. Again, our interior defense is what really hurt us last year for the whole year and it was not good tonight.”
Hayes was not the only Wisconsin player to struggle with his shot in the season’s early going. Koenig, who knocked down 39 percent of his shots from long distance last season and 41 percent two seasons ago, limped into the game making 27 percent of his three-point shots.
But with the crisp Wisconsin passing finding him open behind the arc, Koenig was able to get mostly good looks from the behind the three-point arc and made 6-of-9 attempts. Koenig shoots a textbook jump shot with his feet shoulder width apart, body in balance, high release, pure rotation and exaggerated follow through that sees him waving goodbye to the basket the way countless counselors teach it at summer camps all across the country.
“I never lost faith in Bronson,” said Gard. “I’ve watched him put in the extra time before and after practice and he’s got enough experience to shoot his way out of whatever slump he might be in.” Koenig’s 20-point night lifted his scoring average to over 15 points per game, about a point higher than last season.
Syracuse entered the game ranked 22nd and 24th in the Associated Press and USA Today polls, respectively, but it was coming off a 64-50 defeat to South Carolina and fell behind Wisconsin 28-14 after the first ten minutes of the game. Riding the hot hand of graduate transfer Andrew White, the Orange cut into the Badgers’ lead and went into the locker room at halftime down by only four points at 43-39.
White started his career at Kansas and spent last season at Nebraska before transferring to Syracuse for his fifth-year senior season. The 6-7 wing shot the three-ball at a 41 percent clip for Nebraska last season and carried a current 37 percent shooting mark from distance into the Wisconsin game.
Guarded mostly by the 6-3 Showalter in the first half, White was able to use his length to shoot over Showalter. He worked effectively off down screens for catches above the break of the three-point arc. Even with Showalter often getting a hand up to contest his shot, White had his shot going and knocked down 4-of-6 long distance shots before intermission.
But Gard had a plan for White in the second half. Switching the taller and longer Hayes onto him, White struggled to catch the ball in his cotton spots in the second half and when he did rise up to shoot, his look was not as clean as it was in the first half and he misfired on all three of his second half shots from behind the arc.
“He (White) got loose in the first half, but he also hit some tough ones on us,” said Gard. “We wanted to get a bigger, longer guy on him in the second half. Nigel guarded him last year when we played Nebraska and he was aware of his tendencies. We wanted to switch it up at halftime to try to get him out of his rhythm.”
Boeheim saw it a little differently. Asked about Wisconsin’s switch on White from Showalter to Hayes, Boeheim did not detect much difference in the Badgers defense. “I thought he (White) had similar shots in the second half,” said the Syracuse coach. “They just didn’t fall.”
Named to the watch lists for four different individual national awards (Karl Malone, John R. Wooden, Naismith and Lute Olson), Syracuse is hoping for big things this season from sophomore big Tyler Lydon. Coming off a strong game against South Carolina, where he scored a season-high 18 points and pulled down seven rebounds, Lydon found his shots harder to come by against the stingy Wisconsin defense. Lydon finished with nine points, but needed an inefficient nine shots to reach that figure. Wisconsin hurried him into a 1-for-6 shooting night from behind the arc and limited him to five rebounds.
Boeheim started Lydon at small forward to accommodate 6-9 DaJuan Coleman and 6-8 Tyler Roberson at the starting center and power forward positions, respectively. “It’s harder for Tyler at the three because of the quickness he faces at that position,” said Boeheim. “He’s more effective offensively at the four or five.”
With a reputation as someone who likes to keep the media off balance, Hayes was at his tongue-in-cheek best when asked about coming up just short in his pursuit of his first career triple-double. As he walked up to the free throw line with less than a minute left in the game to shoot the first shot of a bonus opportunity already with double figures in rebounds and assists and needing one point to reach double figures in scoring, Hayes said he asked himself, “Why is everyone screaming?'” With his teammates’ help, Hayes quickly figured out that one more free throw would elevate him into the very private triple-double club.
“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Please don’t be a one-and-one,'” Hayes joked with a straight face. “I just didn’t want that pressure right there. As you saw, I missed the free throw. It was just too much. It was the hardest free throw of my life. I’m extremely distraught right now. I’m almost close to tears. I’m just down in the dumps. Just sad. I’m really hurt. I know that my sister is going to text me. She’s going to give it to me, I know she is. She’s not going to let me live this one down.”
Wisconsin hardly gets a breather for its next opponent as Oklahoma comes calling to Madison on December 3. Syracuse returns home to face North Florida also on December 3.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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