Through the first two-thirds of the season, Wisconsin was one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country.
After pouring in nine makes on 18 attempts against Maryland Feb. 1, the Badgers sat at seventh in the country with a 40.1 percent team mark from deep.
As the competition has heated up leading into postseason play, Wisconsin has gone cold — shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc in the 11 games since.
Wisconsin’s all-around play has suffered with its poor outside shooting. The Badgers outscored their opponents by 15.1 points per game in the first 22 games of the season, but that margin has dropped to just 4.5 in the 11 contests since they’ve gone cold.
Wisconsin’s outside shooting has been one of the most important game-to-game determiners of the team’s success this season, and that importance will only be heightened as the Badgers take on Oregon in the NCAA Tournament’s first round. Wisconsin is 19-3 when it shoots better than 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, and just 4-7 when it doesn’t hit that number.
On the other side of the court, the Ducks have been one of the best three-point defenses this year, allowing opponents to connect on just 29.4 percent of their attempts. Oregon sports a similar split based on opponent shooting, with a 17-4 record when the opponent falls below 33.3 percent from outside.
Wisconsin’s offensive struggles without contributions from beyond the arc were on full display during the Badgers’ Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Michigan State, where they went a season-worst two for 19 from deep. With senior forward Ethan Happ getting contested looks inside and the team's perimeter players unable to beat defenders off the dribble, Wisconsin couldn’t produce anything other than a string of errant threes.
Michigan State’s defense hassled Happ and didn’t allow open driving lanes for the Badger guards, and Oregon’s 2-3 matchup zone will likely do the same. Happ will have his work cut out for him in Friday’s matchup when he goes against Oregon sophomore forward Kenny Wooten, who ranks in the top 10 nationally in defensive box plus-minus and block percentage.
Wooten is one of four players who stand 6-foot-9 in the Ducks' starting lineup, and that length could prove an issue for Wisconsin’s shooters.
“Whenever you have a longer team, an aggressive team, they definitely can get places that other teams can’t,” sophomore guard Brad Davison said to 247Sports.com. “It might take some getting used to and you can’t necessarily work against it in practice — our scout team doesn’t necessarily have that length.”
Assistant coach Howard Moore compared Oregon’s size to fellow PAC-12 team Stanford, which the Badgers faced in November. Wisconsin made only one of eight three-point attempts against the Cardinal. If the Badgers produce a similar performance from beyond the arc on Friday, whether in volume or efficiency, it will spell poorly for their chances of advancing.
Wisconsin’s shooting slump has come during a stretch in which it has faced familiar defenses — eight of the Badgers’ past 11 games have come against a team they were playing for the second time this season — and an NCAA tournament game against a new opponent not familiar with the team’s post-and-kick heavy offense might be exactly what Wisconsin needs to break its current trend.
After the loss to Michigan State, sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said he was happy to finally get out of Big Ten play, and that he was “tired of teams doubling, teams denying the shooters.”
It’s been more than six weeks since Wisconsin posted a three-point shooting performance above its season average. With a stingy Oregon defense on tap in the first round, just one more cold game from outside is likely to send it packing.
But the Badgers showed, at least for the season’s first three months, that they’re capable of being an elite three-point shooting team. In a region filled with teams that feature compact defenses and slow tempos, a return to their early-season marksmanship could mean a deep run far past the Ducks.
“When those shots are falling, we’re a deadly team,” Trice said.
The biggest question now is which team shows up in San Jose.