As the final buzzer sounded in Lincoln and the Wisconsin men’s basketball team (2-3 Big Ten, 9-9 overall) dropped to .500 nearly 20 games into the season, the situation felt unprecedented.
The Badgers have dropped out of the NCAA Tournament conversation entirely and have slipped to No. 75 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They have two significant injuries to sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice and freshman guard Kobe King, while freshman guard Brad Davison and redshirt junior guard Brevin Pritzl have each suffered injury scares of their own.
After returning to Big Ten play in early January and knocking off Indiana at home, UW dropped its ensuing game at Rutgers. As a result, it desperately needed a win over Nebraska (3-2, 12-6). But, 40 minutes after tipoff, the Badgers found themselves once again on the wrong side of the scoreboard, and fell 63-59 to the Cornhuskers.
While UW never trailed by more than 13 points, it led for just 57 seconds and repeatedly committed mental errors on the defensive end.
The Cornhuskers actually only attempted field goals on 69.8 percent of their possessions, compared to 87.6 percent for the Badgers, and turned the ball over three more times than UW. They grabbed fewer offensive rebounds and shot worse from beyond the arc, all of which mixed together is generally a recipe for a UW win.
But the Badgers committed foul after foul, allowing Nebraska free throws on more than a fifth of its possessions, while UW managed just 10 free-throw attempts on the night, where the Badgers converted just 40 percent of their shots.
Davison carried the load early on but fell off as the game wore on, finishing just 5-of-15 from the field for 15 points, dishing out five assists in the process.
Redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ stuffed the stat sheet, as he tends to, recording game highs of 19 points and 11 rebounds and snatched more steals than everyone else on the floor combined. He continued, though, to struggle from the free-throw line, making an abysmal 1-of-6 attempts. In a four-point loss, the Badgers’ superstar cost them five points at the charity stripe.
Despite UW’s uninspiring record there is, in fact, precedence for this extended stretch of poor play to start a season. Two years ago, when Happ first took the court at the Kohl Center, the Badgers found themselves with an identical record 18 games into the season with an even worse conference record. That team nearly squeaked into the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament.
The clock is ticking, though. That 2016 team was 9-9, yes, but after dropping that ninth game, the Badgers won their next seven games and finished the season on an 11-2 run. They looked like one of the best teams in the country.
That seems unlikely for the 2018 edition of the UW squad, as it has yet to find a way to beat quality teams, and if there is going to be a turnaround, it will have to start now.