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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, September 24, 2023
Men's Basketball

Column: Wrapping up the men's hoops season

As great as the NCAA Tournament is, March Madness comes packed with a brutal reality: one misstep and its all over. With one half of poor shooting, Wisconsin found that out the hard way, falling to 12th-seeded Ole Miss to bring a quick end to a postseason run many thought had a chance to go the distance.

I remember back in 2012 in the wake of a Hail Mary loss to Michigan State that there was a feeling of shock in the football team’s locker room at what had been lost in the game’s final seconds. But while many in that locker room, players and media alike, had a sort of “this season is over” reaction to that heartbreaking loss, there were still several games to play and ultimately a Big Ten title to be won.

For UW basketball, there is no such opportunity for redemption. There is no best-of-three series or NIT opportunity. The season is over, done, a thing of the past.

But while the high expectations of this Wisconsin team are a major contributor to the feelings of disappointment, especially in light of the way the West region has played out in the days since Friday’s loss, those expectations were unrealistic. Wisconsin was not a Final Four team, at least not this year.

When junior guard Josh Gasser, projected to start at the point guard position, went down just weeks before the first game with a season-ending knee injury, many both in Madison and elsewhere wondered if the 2012-’13 season would mark the end of UW head coach Bo Ryan’s reign of consistency. Ryan had never finished outside the top four in the Big Ten and had never missed an NCAA Tournament in 11 years as Wisconsin’s head coach.

Having already lost Jordan Taylor, one of the most prolific guards in school history, the loss of Gasser in October seemed to be the break that would bring the Badgers’ competitive run to a temporary end.

Even before Gasser went down, many predictions had Wisconsin finishing between fifth and seventh in the loaded Big Ten standings. With Gasser out and sophomore Traevon Jackson forced into action, the Badgers were all but left for dead by those in the know.

Going 9-4 in non-conference play certainly didn’t help to alleviate the concerns among the Wisconsin faithful that this would be the year they would finally see NIT games played at the Kohl Center. The Badgers lost every major test they had in November and December, being blown out by the likes of Florida, Creighton and Marquette, while losing at home to Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Somehow the Badgers survived another string of mediocre efforts to start Big Ten play, winning closely contested games at home against Penn State and on the road at Nebraska. Despite the 2-0 start, nothing on the court indicated that this UW team would be able to compete with the upper echelon teams in the conference.

Then Illinois came calling. Having been fortunate enough to spend a week in preparation, UW came out as a different team on that January Saturday, blitzing a shocked Illini team out of the blocks and building a 20-point lead before Brandon Paul and company could even catch their collective breath.

Still, that was at the Kohl Center, and even a 3-0 start left open the possibility of collapse, a possibility made very real with Wisconsin in the midst of 11 straight games against ranked opponents.

Then just three days after beating Illinois the Badgers took down Indiana in Bloomington. This wasn’t the hot-and-cold Illini or even the one-dimensional Cal Bears. This was Indiana, at Assembly Hall.

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Suddenly, though still unranked, Wisconsin had gone from bubble hopeful to conference title contender in the most hotly contested race in college basketball. The Badgers were now 4-0 and the last remaining unbeaten in Big Ten play, trailed in the conference standings by five teams that had been ranked in the top 10 in the country at one point.

Predictably, UW came down to earth in Iowa City. The Badgers were overwhelmed by an emotional crowd at Carver-Hawkeye and dug themselves a 30-10 hole that even 20 points from freshman George Marshall couldn’t erase. A home loss three days later to Michigan State took Wisconsin back to square one.

From there, it was a roller-coaster ride the rest of the season. Every time the Badgers pulled off an “upset” win or got on a string of quality performances, they immediately threw up a dismal effort and came crashing back to earth. After that quick 4-0 start, Wisconsin would never again win more than three straight games. Every big high was almost immediately countered by an equally deep low.

The NCAA Tournament requires a six-game winning streak. Wisconsin had just one of those the entire year. So to expect UW to make a sustained run in NCAA Tournament play was simply unrealistic. While the Badgers had proven themselves capable of beating anyone in the nation (though the favorable matchups with Indiana and Michigan certainly aided in the development of that notion), they had failed to show an ability to avoid losing to lesser teams. Wisconsin lost on Senior Day at home to a Purdue team that finished below .500 for the year and struggled twice against lowly Penn State.

When at their best, the Badgers could hang with the best of the best. But when the shots stopped falling, Wisconsin simply refused to try finding another way to get the job done.

Ultimately that is what led to their early exit. Wisconsin was a far better team than Mississippi. They were uniquely qualified to slow down Ole Miss’ high tempo offense and had the disciplined approach to stop the high-octane offense of Rebel star Marshall Henderson.

Although Henderson finished with a game-high 19 points, he was by no means the impact player he had been for much of the SEC schedule. He started the game 1-for-11 and finished just 6-for-21 from the field. Henderson did not beat Wisconsin on his own as he had many teams throughout the regular season.

Wisconsin beat itself. The Badgers, as they had all year, once again bought into the popular notion that they were confined to living by the three and dying by the three. Despite having the best interior player on the court in senior Jared Berggren, Wisconsin never took advantage. After quickly working the ball inside during an early second half run that gave UW a 36-30 lead, the Badgers put an immediate halt to any attempt at establishing an interior presence.

When Mississippi finally began to make shots and erased the Wisconsin lead, the Badgers responded as they had all season: They continued to shoot.

This approach ultimately made the “live and die by the three” prophesy take on a self-fulfilling nature. Just as they had during runs made by Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, Iowa, Marquette, Virginia, Creighton, and Florida, the Badgers tried unsuccessfully to shoot themselves out of an offensive rut.

After taking 10 free throws in the first half, Wisconsin shot just three over the game’s final 20 minutes. Between a Ryan Evans miss at 17:56 (following a made basket) and two makes by Jackson at 1:54, the Badgers did not shoot a single free throw. In that span, UW made just six of its 23 shots. A comfortable five to six point lead had been transformed into a 50-44 deficit with the clock a formidable enemy.

For several years it has been said Wisconsin is built to protect leads. More than one color analyst has commented, “A 10-point lead for Wisconsin is like a 30-point lead for anyone else.” This season, Wisconsin lost leads of nine or more points in seven of its last 12 games prior to the NCAA Tournament (not once before that stretch) and lost leads of six or more points in a total of 12 games.

If having a 10-point lead for Wisconsin was like another team having a 30-point advantage, then the Badgers were not safe this season leading by 30.

This is surprising, especially given the defensive prowess put on display by this year’s squad. While Badger teams tend to be better at holding leads because of their preferred slow pace and ability to limit turnovers, this year’s team had the added benefit of being able to defend some of the nation’s best offensive lineups, holding Indiana and Michigan to a total of 59 points per game (compared to their season averages of 80.0 and 75.2 ppg, respectively). Given head coach Bo Ryan’s UW teams have annually been one of the nation’s premiere defensive units, it seemed like UW’s ability to defend might be enough to overcome inexperienced guards.

But after Wisconsin won its first 12 games this year when holding its opponent under the magic 60-point mark, UW went just 6-6 over its final 12 such games.

As much as people like to call out Ryan for his supposed strategy of reducing games to low-scoring brawls, Wisconsin has been able to score under Ryan. Though his personnel have generally resulted in an intentional effort to limit possessions, Ryan’s teams have found ways to put the ball in the basket consistently. This year, the Badgers weren’t able to do that.

After failing to score 50 points on just five occasions since the start of the 2007-’08 season, Wisconsin finished short of the half-century mark seven times in the final 21 games this season. In fact, prior to that run, it had taken 193 games for UW to find itself below 50 points on seven different occasions, a stretch that goes back to the final weeks of the 2006-’07 season.

Prior to this season, Badger teams had found themselves in shooting droughts. Any UW basketball fan remembers the awful stretch suffered late last year by forward Mike Bruesewitz, and it shouldn’t be hard to think back at times in the Ryan era during which the shots simply weren’t falling for a sustained period of time.

But unlike past teams, this year’s Badger squad didn’t seem willing to make an effort at finding another way to put points on the board. Just two years after coming within a shot of setting the NCAA record for team free throw percentage, Wisconsin was dead last in the Big Ten this season, shooting 63.4 percent at the charity stripe.

While UW shot just 33 percent as a team from 3-point range, the Badgers took more shots from beyond the arc than any Big Ten team other than Illinois. Despite having three experienced frontcourt players and arguably the most athletic 7-footer in the conference, Wisconsin took 784 3-point shots, 184 more than Ohio State and 273 more than Michigan State. Of the 1,959 shots Wisconsin took during the 2012-’13 season, 40 percent of them were from 3-point range. Big Ten regular season champion Indiana took just 32 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.

Unless UW finds a group of shooters, this trend of over-reliance on the triple has to reverse itself before Wisconsin once again contends for a Big Ten title and makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Given the Badgers’ top-tier defense, it makes no sense that UW cannot win the six straight games necessary to secure a national title, even when the shots aren’t falling. If any one program should be built to “survive and advance,” it is Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the inability of this year’s team to recognize its flaws starts at the top. Game after game, I heard Ryan shrug off a poor shooting performance with the age-old, “The shots will fall eventually” insistence, contending the shot selection was fine and nothing else could be done to get the ball to go through the hoop.

For the first few such games, this was a good attitude. Although never as consistently as coaches and players would admit, the missed shots were—for the most part—good looks. However, as the jump shots continued to fall by the wayside, the Badgers did not work the ball inside, but rather continued fitting what had become a square peg into an increasingly round hole.

Ultimately, that inability to accept a major flaw and deal with it head-on is what set the stage for the disappointment of Wisconsin’s second-round loss. Defensively, UW did everything it needed to do. The Badgers held Mississippi under 60 points for the first time all season and did not allow Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson to get going early. Wisconsin kept the Rebel big men under control for the most part and controlled the tempo, keeping the game slow.

But when jump shots began to clank off the iron in the second half, Wisconsin did not make much of an attempt to find another way to survive and advance. Ultimately, that is why the Badgers were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament earlier than expected.

Badgers' core built for bright future

Now that the season is over, the focus turns to next season. In addition to the return of will-be redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser, UW brings to campus the state defensive player of the year in guard Bronson Koenig and adds two solid big men from Ohio: Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes. This class, along with remaining pieces in forward Sam Dekker, guard Ben Brust, forward Frank Kaminsky, forward Evan Anderson and, yes, even forward Duje Dukan, gives Wisconsin fans plenty to look forward to.

Once again, the Badgers will be challenged from the start. Although the Cancun Challenge, UW’s Thanksgiving tournament, is far from loaded, Wisconsin will entertain Florida and Marquette at the Kohl Center and will likely face a road game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (perhaps against one of the conference’s newcomers). With the Big Ten forecast to be just as strong as it was in the 2012-’13 campaign, Ryan and company will once again face a tough task as they enter conference play.

With most of next year’s nucleus having no more than a full year of experience, Gasser’s return will be crucial. If there is one thing that was  missing from this year’s team, it was consistency at the point guard position. Though Traevon Jackson produced some clutch shots against Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State, he also went through prolonged spells during which he struggled with his shot and failed to take care of the ball. Guard George Marshall, despite enormous expectations in his redshirt freshman year, failed to provide much support off the bench. So even with the addition of Koenig, Gasser will still be relied upon to provide the consistency Wisconsin lacked this season.

But whatever happens at the point guard position, Wisconsin will be more fun to watch in the coming years. With star power in Dekker, Koenig and potentially Hayes, the Badgers have the pieces to be a serious contender not only in the Big Ten, but also on the national scene. In contrast to the prodding offense of the past few years, the Wisconsin teams of the next four should be able to run. They won’t be Michigan or Indiana, but they won’t be held under 50 points seven times in a span of 21 games, either—that I can promise you.

This year, despite the disappointment of an early postseason exit, UW outlived realistic expectations. Lacking a true point guard and failing to get consistent production from its seniors, Wisconsin still managed to put itself squarely in the Big Ten title race and run all the way to the conference tournament final. Criticize all you want, Ryan got everything he could out of his team this season.

Going forward, there is plenty of promise and perhaps even greater expectation. For the first time since the 2010-’11 season, Ryan will have two bona fide stars on his roster. With the calming influence of Gasser and the outside shooting of Brust, Wisconsin has all the pieces.

Now, it’s time to finally put those pieces together.

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