Men's hoops: Wildcats up next

Vedran Vukusic (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Badgers can improve to 4-0 in the Big Ten with a win Saturday

Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard reserves high praise for Northwestern forward Vedran Vukusic.

"He's probably the most diverse player in the Big Ten," Gard said. "In terms of has size at 6-8 and about 230 and can play inside. Handles well enough that if he gets in transition he can take it to the rim himself. Handles well (enough) in the half court that they'll play him off ball screens. And is mobile enough where they can run him up the backdoors, they can run him up the fades, they can do dribble hand-offs with him. He can score in a variety of ways. He's really developed into a very, very complete player."

For the past two seasons, Vukusic has quietly been one of the best players in the Big Ten. He is listed at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds and he is averaging 21.8 points per game this season. Vukusic is shooting 55 percent from the floor, 38 percent from 3-point range (30 of 80) and 79 percent at the free-throw line.

It is no secret that NU's offense runs through Vukusic. The Wildcats' scheme is predicated on exaggerated floor spacing and a patient series of screens and cuts. The scheme itself is a challenge to defend—particularly when it is executed as well as this NU team typically executes it. But the real challenge comes in the form of Vukusic.

"He's kind of been a role model in terms of the versatility that the players need within that system," Gard said.

For the past two days in practice, the Badgers have been working on defending NU's offensive scheme: the spacing, the tempo, the cuts, the reads.

"We can sit there and draw all day and draw exactly what the cuts are and the different sets that they run, or different stages of the offense," Gard said. "But the timing, the tempo, the feel and the reads, are hard to simulate."

Northwestern also tends to do a good job of making teams uncomfortable with its zone defenses.

"They've done that in the past with some of the matchup 2-3, and now they are playing a little bit more 1-3-1," Gard said. "It's just trying to take you out of your comfort zone. Try to make you become hesitant, where you don't make good decisions. If you do make a decision, they try to get you to float passes. Just not be sharp, try and take you out of a rhythm."

This will not be the first time this season that UW has had to deal with a 1-3-1 zone defenses similar to NU's.

"I think we're not speaking a foreign language when we're talking to our guys now about what it tries to create, and what they're trying to do with it," Gard said.

For the Badgers, it will not be the same old swing offense against the 1-3-1 or the 2-3.

"We have different specials for different type of zones," point guard Kammron Taylor said. "Whenever I'm out there I have to read the defenses, if they are playing a 2-3 or a 1-3-1, I have to have to be the guy out there making the calls."

NU cannot match the Badgers' size in the post, but the Wildcats do start a pair of 6-4 guards who can get in passing lanes and fluster an opponent's backcourt.

"Northwestern, they run (the 1-3-1) much better than our scout team," Taylor said. "They're taller and longer. Coach… he was trying to simulate that by putting (Brian) Butch or Jason (Chappell) or Joe (Krabbenhoft) on the scout team to get that feel with the long arms. We know that we're going to have to make better passes."

Stiemsma probable: Greg Stiemsma, UW's 6-foot-11 reserve center, is probable for Saturday's game with what has been officially deemed a medically minor issue. Reserve forward Marcus Landry missed practice Thursday with a medically minor issue, but returned to the court Friday and will play.

Badger Nation prognostication: The Wildcats' offensive and defensive schemes will make for a low possession game. NU's 1-3-1 defense will be a challenge, but expect the Badgers to return to their low-turnover ways after a 22-turnover performance at Minnesota.

Wisconsin will have to be weary of Vukusic, but Jason Chappell should be able to hold up reasonably well against him defensively.

On each end of the floor, the Badgers' size will grate on the smaller Wildcats, who have struggled to rebound this season, with a minus-five average rebounding margin, compared to UW's plus-five.

When the Wildcats are hitting outside shots, getting Vukusic free and executing their defense at a high level, they are very difficult to deal with. Wisconsin's personnel, however, will be way too much for NU's schemes.

Our pick: Wisconsin 68, Northwestern 50.

What: No. 21 Wisconsin (13-2 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) v. Northwestern (9-5, 2-1)
When: Saturday, Jan. 14 at 1:32 p.m. Central
Site: Kohl Center (17,142) in Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: ESPN Regional will televise the game live. The Wisconsin Radio Network will broadcast the game live.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 99-59, including a 58-20 edge in Madison… The Badgers have won nine of the past 11 games in the series and have won seven consecutive home games over Northwestern… In six trips to the Kohl Center, the Wildcats are averaging 44.5 points per game.

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