MADISON, Wis. — The offense is a work in progress for No. 9 Wisconsin, but the defense is in midseason form.
Bronson Koenig had 16 points, Nigel Hayes scored 10 of his 14 in the second half and the Badgers held Central Arkansas to 28 percent shooting while opening a season of high expectations with a 79-47 win Friday night.
The Badgers were never seriously threatened after building a 20-point lead with 15:46 left following an 8-0 run. Hayes did all the scoring with two 3-pointers and a layup.
But all that time they spent on defense in preseason practice paid off in the opener at the Kohl Center.
“We've done a lot of drills, pulled drills out from yesteryear, put a lot of focus on that, because I knew we were going to have to be a really good defensive team,” coach Greg Gard said.
It's just one game, but the defensive effort bodes well for when rough-and-tumble Big Ten play starts in late December. Wisconsin pulled away after Central Arkansas got to 19-17 with 7:13 left in the first half.
“You know about their defense,” Bears coach Russ Pennell said. “Then we see it up close and personal, you see how good it is. . . . They just don't give you anything easy.”
The Badgers pride themselves on halfcourt defense, in particular how they defend ball-screen and close driving lanes. They were a little over-aggressive early on the boards before asserting their muscles to outrebound Central Arkansas 45-29.
“I thought we showed a lot of promise and we had flashes of playing really good defense,” Koenig said.
Once Wisconsin started knocking down shots against the Bears' matchup zone, it was no contest.
Hayes, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, was 5 of 10 from the field. He finished 2 for 6 from 3-point range after missing his first three shots from behind the arc.
Derreck Brooks had 12 points and eight rebounds for Central Arkansas.
Ethan Happ added eight points and nine rebounds for the Badgers. They have all five starters and their top nine scorers back from last season's team that advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals.
Central Arkansas: Picked to finish 11th in the 13-team Southland Conference in a preseason coaches poll, the Bears hung in with the more talented Badgers until midway through the first half. With a rough schedule befitting a low mid-major school, Central Arkansas should draw confidence following a respectable effort against a potential Final Four team.
“Their size and physicality really took over in the second half. We just really weren't able to stand up to that,” Pennell said.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are deeper and more experienced than the squad that was stunned in last year's season opener by Western Illinois. D'Mitrik Trice scored six points off the bench in the first half Friday with two 3s. The freshman could give Wisconsin added quickness in a reserve role when Koenig needs a breather. Sophomore Khalil Iverson displayed athleticism with a block minutes after jumping high in the air on the other end for an offensive rebound to save a possession.
TAKE A SHOT
It took a little while for Wisconsin to get its bearings on offense, though Gard's team finished 11 of 29 from 3-point range. With able post scorers in Hayes and Happ, the Badgers don't normally rely on 3s to score. But Gard for the most part was happy with the shots taken from outside against Central Arkansas' zone.
“If they're open 3s, we'll take them. Not that we necessarily just want to shoot all 3s, but it works for the Warriors,” joked the verbose Hayes, referring to the NBA's Golden State Warriors.
Wisconsin should stay at No. 9 in the poll next week, pending how No. 3 Kansas and No. 5 Oregon fared later Friday night.
Central Arkansas: A tough opening-week schedule continues with a trip on Nov. 14 to Oklahoma State.