Wisconsin’s 77-68 win over Xavier shows Badgers’ claims of improvement are legit
CINCINNATI — The 2018-19 version of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, its members have insisted for over a month now, is new and improved.
The skepticism that greeted that claim was understandable and, up until Tuesday night, the Badgers didn’t have any solid evidence as a counter. Nobody saw a win over Iowa State in a closed scrimmage, an exhibition victory over Division III UW-Oshkosh wasn’t all that impressive and a season-opening win over lowly Coppin State wasn’t going to prove anything.
So when sophomore guard Brad Davison and his teammates walked into the Cintas Center for a game against Xavier, they definitely felt like they had something to prove.
“It’s kind of like we finally had our shot … to show the world what we’re about this year,” Davison said. “I think a lot of people kind of still have that Wisconsin from last year in their minds, and we’re not the same team as last year.”
The Badgers presented plenty of proof to support that statement during a 77-68 victory over the Musketeers in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.
Senior center Ethan Happ provided another sparkling all-around performance, following up his triple-double against Coppin State with 30 points, 13 rebounds and five assists to help UW improve to 2-0.
Sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice added a career-high 22 points and Davison had 19 as the Badgers ended Xavier’s 41-game non-conference home winning streak.
The Badgers never trailed and led by as many as 18 points in the second half. Things were a little dicey down the stretch after UW got sloppy on both ends of the court, but the bottom line is that Greg Gard’s team found a way to do something it failed to do last season en route to finishing 15-18 and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades: post a quality win early in the season.
“We’ve just got a little bit more experience than last year,” Trice said. “I think we’re coming out with a lot of confidence and we’ve got a good handle on what we have on this team, and I think it showed tonight.”
Sophomore forward Naji Marshall posted career highs with 24 points and 13 rebounds for Xavier (2-1), which hadn’t lost a non-conference home game since a 56-55 setback against Wofford on Dec. 22, 2012.
The Musketeers struggled defensively in home wins over IUPUI and Evansville to open the season, and they couldn’t contain the three-headed monster of Happ, Trice and Davison. The trio combined for all but six of UW’s points.
“No disrespect to Wisconsin, they’re a great team, but we just lost focus on the defensive end,” Marshall said. “We lost our intensity and that’s kind of been our deal as the season’s started. We’ve got to lock in and play the whole game.”
The Badgers shot a blistering 62.5 percent from the field after halftime, averaging a robust 1.42 points per possession in the process.
One big key was doing a better job of finishing around the rim. According to Gard, UW went 12 of 16 in the paint in the second half after a dismal 8-of-22 showing in the opening 20 minutes.
Xavier found itself in a lose-lose situation while trying to figure out how to defend the Badgers. It couldn’t devote extra bodies to stop Happ because Trice and Davison were so lethal from the perimeter.
So while Trice and Davison were combining to go 9 of 11 from 3-point range, Happ was feasting on one-on-one matchups while racking up the bulk of UW’s 40 points in the paint.
“That’s big when we have Meech hitting shots,” Happ said after Trice improved to 10 of 14 from beyond the arc on the season. “Thinking back on this game, there were a lot of times when Meech hit some big shots and Brad hit some big shots when they were making their runs. For them to step up and make those shots is huge for our team going forward.”
Gard thought the Badgers did a superb job of sharing the ball and making sure the ball didn’t get stuck on one side of the floor.
UW’s best stretch came early in the second half after Xavier had pulled to within two points. The Badgers answered with a 16-2 run that included six points from Happ, five from Trice and one of three second-half 3-pointers from Davison that came late in the shot clock.
Senior forward Khalil Iverson ended the burst with a dunk – the first UW points of the game by someone other than Happ, Trice or Davison – to give the Badgers a 48-32 lead with 14 minutes, 26 seconds to play.
Xavier made it a two-possession game in the closing minute and had a chance to get closer, but a 3-pointer was wiped out with 17.8 seconds remaining when Davison drew a foul on Marshall on a screen. Trice made a free throw and redshirt freshman wing Kobe King added two more to seal the win for UW.
“It’s like we haven’t gotten to actually play with each other a whole lot,” Davison said. “We really have wanted to and it’s something we’ve talked about and dreamed about and worked for, and we actually get that chance and it’s a great way to show it on the biggest stage that we’ve had this year.”