No. 17 Wisconsin, for perhaps the first time all season, finally looked like the team that was a preseason favorite to win the Big Ten regular season title on Tuesday night.
The Badgers shredded the Orange, winning 77-60, an offensive performance that only gets more impressive when you consider that there were just 64 possessions in the game.
Looking at the box score, the change seems obvious, right? Wisconsin got Ethan Happ, who we have long said is Wisconsin’s best player, more involved – he finished with 24 points and 13 boards and led the team in field goals and free throws attempted – while Bronson Koenig, who entered the game shooting 24.6 percent from three, finally found the range from distance, going 6-for-9 from beyond the arc and scoring a season-high 20 points in what was by far his most efficient game of the season.
What simply looking at the box score won’t tell you, however, is that the real difference in this game, and what could end up being the launching point for a Wisconsin Big Ten title run this season, is the way that Greg Gard used Nigel Hayes.
Or, perhaps more importantly, the way that Hayes decided to play.
For the first six games of the season, Hayes played like he was a floor-spacer.
On Tuesday night, he was the guy that you space the floor around.
Nigel Hayes was entrenched in the high-post against the Syracuse zone, and he put on an absolute clinic is how to breakdown a 2-3 zone.
His high-low passing was incredible. He used his eyes and ball-fakes to move the defense and create open threes for his teammates on the perimeter. He was a puppetmaster, and a young Syracuse team didn’t stand a chance against it.
This is important to note because this is not what Wisconsin’s zone offense has always looked like this season.
Take, for example, this possession against Georgetown from the Maui Invitational. Does this look anything like the zone offense from Tuesday night?:
Wisconsin would go on to win this game, but it wasn’t because the Badgers thoroughly dominated from the tip. Oklahoma State and, arguably, Arkansas State landed more impressive wins over that same Hoya team, and neither of them were expected to do all that much this season.
In fact, it’s been possessions like that that have bogged down the Badgers this year. As talented as Koenig is, he’s a scorer at heart, not a facilitator. Through the first three weeks of the season, he’s been where the Wisconsin offense has gone to die. He entered Tuesday night’s game 14-for-57 from three not because he’s a bad three-point shooter, but because so many of his threes have been contested jumpers off the dribble:
As Koenig proved on Tuesday night, he’s dangerous when he can take catch-and-shoot rhythm threes – all six of the threes he made were no-dribble jumpers – but without another proven playmaker on the floor, he hasn’t gotten all that many opportunities to do so.
Hayes, on the other hand, has not proven to be a good standstill shooter. I went through and watch all of the jumpers that he has taken this season, and he’s had quite a few good, clean, often wide-open looks from three. He just missed them. Maybe he’s not quite as good of a shooter as he thinks he is. Maybe he’s lost his confidence in his jumper. Maybe this is just a fluky thing that happens in a random subset of 31 three-pointers.
But whatever the issue is, it wasn’t getting answered by Hayes plopping himself behind the three-point line and bombing away. The criticism of him heading into the year was that he shot 36 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from three as a junior, that he needed to settle less for jumpers, which is something that he was still doing early this year; through the first six games of the year, Hayes was shooting 29.0 percent from three while taking 1.5 more threes per game than he did as a junior.
In addition to missing wide-open, catch-and-shoot threes, Hayes was also missing deep, contested jumpers like these:
Here’s the thing: Hayes is probably the best playmaker on Wisconsin when he wants to be. He led the team in assists last season. We all saw how good of a passer he can be last night when he wants to be. He’s also capable of scoring in the post and beating bigger defenders to the rim. He’s the kind of versatile forward that overpowers smaller defenders and beats bigger defenders off the dribble. He was named the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and when he plays like he has the last two games, he looks the part.
And it’s no coincidence that when Hayes is playing this way, Wisconsin looks like the best team in the Big Ten.