"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, September 21, 2023

UW-Madison Preview, 2023-24

UW-Madison Badgers

December 2, 2023, Kohl Center

Head Coach: Greg Gard (164-94)

Three-Year NET Average: 42.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 37.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 30

Projected Starters: PG Chucky Hepburn (6'2" Jr), SG Max Klesmit (6'3" Sr), SF A.J. Storr (6'7" So), PF Tyler Wahl (6'9" 5th), C Steven Crowl (7'0" Sr)

Chucky Hepburn singed Marquette at Fiserv last season

Photo by John Fisher | Getty Images

The Badgers had an up and down season. Greg Gard kept up his 6-year streak of landing at least one win against a kenpom top-10 team when they beat Marquette at Fiserv, and they began the year 11-2 (3-0 Big 10) with the only losses by a single possession to Kansas and Wake Forest. They followed that up by losing 6 of 7, then mostly alternated wins and losses as they bounced around the NCAA bubble the rest of the year. In the end, they missed the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in Gard's tenure, and an NIT semifinal appearance is likely little consolation to a fanbase that has been lukewarm on Gard for most of his career.

All five starters are back for this team. Chucky Hepburn is a face Marquette fans will not forget as his 19 points that included 5/6 shooting from three dealt the Golden Eagles their only home loss of the season. He is joined in the back court by Max Klesmit, who as expected saw his usage drop from his time at Wofford but improved his ball-handling and three-point shooting to give Hepburn a competent partner. Connor Essegian is another reliable shooter that doesn't turn the ball over. Up front, Tyler Wahl didn't have the breakout year some (including Cracked Sidewalks) expected as he needs to rediscover his interior touch (43.8 2PFG% after being a career 54.7% coming in). Steven Crowl mans the middle and is able to not only score in the paint but stretch the floor and create for others. The wildcard for this time is likely A.J. Storr. The St. John's transfer started 17 games for the Red Storm and is likely the best player on the team at creating his own shot both inside the arc and out. He may carve out a starting role with his offensive skills and at 6'6" he has the length to be disruptive defensively. The other most likely bench contributors are Carter Gilmore, a former walk-on that earned 3 starts last year, and freshman Gus Yalden.

With Johnny Davis gone, Greg Gard returned to the slow pace UW-Madison is known for. Ball control, taking time to create shots, swinging the ball around until you find someone with less than 10 on the shot clock to get a look. They favor jump shots over driving and won't hammer the offensive glass, instead getting back on defense. Defensively, they will stick with a rigid man-to-man, keep the boards clean, and defend without fouling. They are exceptional on the defensive end at slowing teams down and forcing them into late shot clock situations as well which suits their tempo.

Bringing nearly everyone back from an NIT semifinalist, the NCAA Tournament has to be the goal for this Badger team. That said, running it back with the same general roster a year older doesn't always guarantee greater success. The biggest problem for the Badgers most of last year was not having the Chucky Hepburn Marquette fans saw at Fiserv. In that game, he was efficient the entire night and a closer when they needed him most. But in their last 5 regular season losses, they had a lead with less than 5 minutes to play. For the regular season, it was 8 games in total they lost while having a lead under 5:00. Repeatedly they needed someone to step up and came up short, which is what cost them the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it's Storr, maybe it's a more experienced Hepburn, maybe it's someone else, but if they want to make noise in March they need someone to prove they are willing and able to take and make tough shots when the game is on the line.

What We've Learned: This team is erratic. After an uncharacteristic 105 point explosion in their first game, the highest scoring game in Kohl Center history, the Badgers dropped back-to-back games to Tennessee at home and were drubbed by Providence on the road. After playing Robert Morris close, they went to Fort Myers and blew out Virginia and pulled away from SMU to win the Fort Myers Tip-Off. The most surprising development may be the disappearance of Connor Essegian, who not only hasn't started a game yet (A.J. Storr took his role) but is tenth in minutes played so far. Not surprisingly, the key for Wisconsin has been tempo. Aside from the laugher against Arkansas State to open the season, when they play more than 62 possessions, they struggle (1-2 with the win a 10-point decision over RMU). When they keep it to 61 or fewer, they are 3-0 with an average 18-point margin of victory.

In terms of what Marquette can control, they need to do two things that feed each other. Wisconsin has their worst offensive turnover ranking in 6 years, while Marquette is turning teams over at a higher rate than any Shaka Smart team since he was at VCU. Pressure the ball-handlers into turnovers and turn those into quick points. Don't let them get comfortable and if they do get into the offense, don't give up on a possession until it's over because they do not feel pressure late in the shot clock. Marquette managed to speed up UCLA enough to pull off the comeback. Do the same against Wisconsin and they should win the game. But it's still Bucky, and none of us will feel comfortable until the last buzzer sounds with Marquette in the lead.

Marquette Connection: Last year at this time, Zaide Lowery and Gus Yalden were gearing up for their final season as high school players at the prep school La Lumiere in Indiana. LaLu, as it is affectionately known, is one of the premier prep schools in the country, claiming such players as Jordan Poole, Jaden Ivey, Jaren Jackson, and Tyger Campbell as alumni. Now they go from teammates to rivals, as Lowery is a freshman at Marquette and Yalden will be on the other side of the I-94 rivalry as a Badger (selecting Madison over Marquette on his final list). Update: Yalden has yet to play this year and is facing numerous legal issues. It's highly unlikely he will see action on Saturday and it seems his future at Wisconsin is uncertain.

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