INDIANAPOLIS — On the eve of Thursday evening’s matchup between Wisconsin and Nebraska at the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Cornhusker head coach Tim Miles made a prediction.
“It’s Greg Gard’s first day on the job officially, so I’m sure he will be nervous, and hopefully we can take advantage of that,” Miles said at his postgame press conference after beating Rutgers 89-72 in the first round of the conference tournament.
Wisconsin’s shaky performance probably can’t be chalked up to Gard’s nerves, but it’s fair to say something wasn’t quite right with the Badgers in their stunning 70-58 loss to Nebraska Thursday.
The Badgers launched an 8-1 run in the second half after a drowsy first 20 minutes of play. Bronson Koenig finally hit his first field goal after going 0-of-4 in the opening half, Ethan Happ added a layup and Nigel Hayes chipped in a pair of free throws and a basket to recharge UW’s offensive output. The Badgers pulled ahead, 29-27, at the 16:37 mark, but Nebraska tied the game the next possession and took the lead on its next trip down the floor. As it turned out, it was a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
UW reverted to its ugly offensive play in the first half, rushing shots early in the play clock and failing to work the ball into the paint. It shot a dismal 31 percent from the field and committed five turnovers in the second half, allowing Nebraska to gradually pull away as the game went on.
For the first time in what feels like months, UW’s offense was in disarray, as it went into the half down 26-21. Head coach Greg Gard was clearly determined to work the ball inside to Ethan Happ, whose success under the newly appointed head coach has been encouraging. Happ, however, struggled mightily in the opening frame, shooting 2-of-7 and pulling in three rebounds. He did add two steals, but Happ also committed two turnovers and didn’t display the sure-handedness he’s developed throughout the course of the season. There was a particularly ugly sequence midway through the first half when Happ had two consecutive chip shots from underneath the basket rejected by the Cornhuskers. Happ seemed to lack assertiveness and confidence in the first half, and it showed through on that possession.
Part of Happ’s struggles can be attributed to Nebraska head coach Tim Miles’ game plan to double-team the forward as soon as he touched the ball, swarming him with defenders down low and leaving the perimeter open. Wisconsin, however, failed to take advantage of that high-risk, aggressive tactic.
The Badgers shot a dismal 29 percent from the field and went just 3-of-10 from the free throw line in the opening half.
Wisconsin can consider itself lucky to have Vitto Brown on its side. The junior forward was perfect from the field in the first half, hitting all five of his shots, including three 3-pointers. With the exception of a poor entrance pass to Happ, who was posting up for position on the block, Brown played mistake-free basketball in the first half. He was charged with covering Shavon Shields when Nigel Hayes was off the court, and he was serviceable against the prolific six-foot-seven, 225-pound forward.
However, Brown attempted just two field goals in the second half, missing both. He finished with 16 points, but his input could have, and should have, been much greater.
Happ lead Wisconsin scorers with 17 points, Koenig kicked in 11 and Hayes had 10.
Stay tuned to The Daily Cardinal for a full recap from Indianapolis.