Much has been made of Wisconsin's recent propensity to rely on long-distance shooting. Entering Sunday's game against a much smaller Northwestern team, along with junior forward Jon Leuer playing his first home game since his injury, the Badgers had an opportunity to return to a more balanced offense, and they did that with enough success to hold off the Wildcats yesterday.
In Wisconsin's last two losses against Illinois and Minnesota, the Badgers averaged 29.5 3-point attempts per game. The Badgers needed to trade some of those 3-point shots for better looks closer to the basket, and for the most part, they did that yesterday.
Wisconsin set the tone in the beginning of the first half, opting for shots from short- and mid-range distance. A layup by sophomore guard Jordan Taylor to open the scoring for Wisconsin, followed by two mid-range jumpers by junior forward Keaton Nankivil and another jumper inside the arc by senior guard Trevon Hughes, accounted for the Badgers' first eight points. Free throws by Taylor and junior forward Jon Leuer and made shots by Leuer and freshman forward Ryan Evans gave Wisconsin a 16-12 lead with 14:25 remaining in the first half. At this point, the Badgers were perfect from the field, and without one 3-point attempt.
Wisconsin maintained its early success throughout the half, finishing it with unbelievable efficiency from inside the arc, shooting 10-for-11.
But by no means did the Badgers abandon the 3. Wisconsin attempted nine 3-point shots in the half, not a low figure at all. But the majority of the attempts came with the shooter in space, and as a result, the Badgers finished the first half shooting 56 percent from outside the arc.
Another element of the game Wisconsin improved on during the first half Sunday was its ability to get to the line, which is an inevitable product from increased aggressiveness around the basket. After shooting seven foul shots in the loss to Minnesota, the Badgers shot nine in the first half alone against Northwestern.
Playing a better offensive half for Wisconsin would have been near impossible. The Badgers completed the first half shooting 15-of-20 from the floor, 5-of-9 from 3-point range and 8-of-9 from the foul line, resulting in a 43-29 halftime lead for UW.
""The first half we weren't able to make any stops,"" Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said.
In the second half, Wisconsin got away from its first-half approach a little, showing less discipline from behind the arc. Senior guard Trevon Hughes and Taylor each made poor decisions, shooting 3-pointers from well behind the arc and sometimes with defenders in their faces. Wisconsin made two 3-point shots on 11 attempts in the second half.
Some of Wisconsin's offensive deficiency, however, should be attributed to Northwestern's defense. Northwestern went into its 1-3-1 look early in the first half, but in the second half took it to another level, extending the zone up to half-court, and Wisconsin had trouble finding quality shots and making smart decisions with the ball. In the middle of the second half, the Badgers turned the ball over three times in under two minutes, an uncharacteristic development for Wisconsin.
Northwestern ran a full-court press a good portion of the game as well, and as the Wildcats scored more during the second half, they had more chances to use the press, which clearly bothered the Badgers.
Finally during crunch time with the score tight, Wisconsin made better decisions with the ball and got just enough offensive production to squeak out a 70-63 win.
One of the most telling possessions of the game came during its final stretch, when after moving the ball well, Taylor settled for a long 3-point attempt that came up short. But the Badgers were fortunate enough to control the rebound, and after resetting, senior guard Jason Bohannon chose to send an entry pass deep into the post to Leuer, who was immediately fouled. That possession showed clearly how advantageous looking inside can be, especially during the final minutes of the game.
""You get tentative against what they do,"" UW head coach Bo Ryan said. ""The shots get a little bit tougher. We went through quite a stretch there where we weren't quite getting shots where we were stepping into the perimeter shots or touching the post enough. But finally down the stretch, we did.""