After a 16-0 start to the 2013-’14 season, nobody saw what would come next for Wisconsin. The No. 2-ranked team in the country went on to lose five of its next six Big Ten conference games.
The Badgers fell to Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State in under three weeks’ time. Their only glimpse of victory during the losing streak was to Purdue Jan. 25.
Surprisingly, this 18-day slump was arguably the best possible thing to happen to Wisconsin.
For anyone that has kept up with Badger basketball during the Bo Ryan era, it’s no secret that his teams have a habit of falling in love with the 3-point shot. This year’s team fell victim to this trend early in the season, and it showed during its losing stretch.
In these five losses, Wisconsin averaged 20.4 points from 3-point range and shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc. Their season average up until the Final Four was nearly 38 percent.
The Badgers were not only settling for the 3-point shot too often, but were shooting well below their average. Offense was seemingly nonexistent.
Then, something began to change. There was a gradual style switch occurring in the Badgers’ offense. They began using junior forward Frank Kaminsky and, at the time, emerging freshman forward Nigel Hayes.
These weapons in the paint had never been utilized to their potential until that point in the season. The Badgers’ post game completely changed the beat of their attack.
The ball was going into Kaminsky and Hayes, who would attack the rim or find an open man on the perimeter for an uncontested 3-pointer. The inside-out play displayed by the “new” Wisconsin team proved to be a menace for opponents.
If the ball got into Kaminsky down low, he could always score unless the opponent brought a double-team, but when the double came, Kaminsky had the vision to find the open man for an easy shot.
The quantity of 3-point shots taken had barely changed, but the quality of the 3-pointers taken was much improved. The long ball was no longer their last resort as the shot clock wound down. It was instead a secondary threat used when open shots were presented.
There just seemed to be a flow to the offense arising that wasn’t present all season long, even during the 16-0 win streak.
They would go on to win eight straight following their losing stretch, featuring wins over the top three conference teams in Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa.
For the first time in a while, Wisconsin looked like they could win any game, even if they shot poorly, something past Badger teams could never have boasted.
Another development that seemed to contrive from this losing stretch was the acceptance of roles by individuals on the roster.
Sophomore forward Sam Dekker is perhaps the best example. Named to the “Wooden Watch” at the beginning of the season, Dekker came into the season as the guy who would be Wisconsin’s lead scorer and go-to guy. That’s exactly what he was for a long part of the season, but this would all change come mid-January.
Amidst the teams’ struggles, Dekker stepped aside from the spotlight and began to play a much more quiet role. He started to sacrifice his scoring and shot attempts for the good of the team.
No longer was he the first option offensively. His scoring averages took a hit, as the contribution from others became the better option. Some players could have put their heads down and had a poor attitude, but not Dekker.
The once leading scorer found new ways to contribute to the team’s success. He continued to be a force on the boards, while providing a spark in transition play and on the defensive end.
It was during the rough patch of UW’s season that Dekker, and others, decided what needed to be sacrificed for the good of the team.
If not for UW’s struggles midseason, I’m not sure that this team adapts into the Final Four squad they became. It was that 18-day period that shaped the Wisconsin team more than any win(s) could possibly do.
Some of the best learning experiences come from defeat, and the Badgers proved this to be true this season.