It was 23 degrees in Madison at tip-off, with the wind-chill pushing that number well into the teens. It’s part of a nation-wide arctic blast, plummeting temperatures around the country.
Somehow, Wisconsin’s (2-1) offense started even colder Wednesday night in its 83-63 win over the McNeese State Cowboys (1-3).
In the first half, the Badgers shot just 3-13, good for a measly 23 percent, from behind the arc. Junior guard D’Mitrik Trice, who scored just four points in UW’s 65-52 win over Eastern Illinois, was held scoreless after going 0-5 from three. Outside of junior guard Brad Davison, who had 14, UW’s next leading scorer was walk-on Walt McGrory with nine, a career-high. He scored three points all of last season.
The Badgers have maintained all season that they are a good-shooting team despite their early season struggles. Two and a half games into the season, that sentiment appeared ill-advised, and it looked as if they might have to revisit their offensive identity.
Then came the second half.
UW shot 47 percent from three and 61 percent from the field in the second half, including a stretch where they made 11 straight shots. On pace to score 74 at halftime, the Badgers passed that with 6:30 left to play. A team that looked like it couldn’t hit a shot in an empty gym all of a sudden couldn’t miss.
It’s easy to say Wisconsin simply shot better in the second half, but it went much further than that – they got back to what their identity needs to be the rest of the season. The Badgers got better shots in better rhythm, proving this can be a good-shooting team given the right ingredients. That missing ingredient? A better defensive performance.
“It really started on the defensive end,” Davison said. “Coach told us that’s where we have to pride ourselves. We forced them into some tough shots, created some turnovers which created some good looks for us on the offensive end in transition.”
Right there – and improved defensive effort – is where the key to Wisconsin’ offense can be found. When their defense forced the issue, the Badgers started scoring in bunches. They forced 11 turnovers in the second half, scoring 19 points off those turnovers. In a six-minute span midway through the second half, they forced five turnovers, helping them extend their lead from seven to 19.
“We were more proactive and aggressive, we kept the ball out of the post,” coach Greg Gard said of the second half. “We obviously got some offense from our defense. It’s nice to see the ball go in, but the catalyst was, we were much better defensively in the second half… They got back to where we need to be defensively in the second half.”
Simply put, the Badgers need to build their identity around their defense. Void of go-to scorers and guys who can create their own shots, especially without sophomore forward Kobe King who was out with a leg injury, Wisconsin’s best offensive outputs will likely come on the heels of dominant defensive performances.
This is a team that gets very few easy buckets. Without an Ethan Happ-type player to lean on offensively, UW is reliant on its system to create open looks. Oftentimes, the Badgers see the shot clock run down under five seconds before they get a shot up, and have already gone through eerily similar scoring droughts they experienced last year. That’s when, as they did tonight, the Badgers need to rely on their defense to create offense in transition.
In the half court, this is an offense that scares very few. When they play the kind of active, disruptive defense they played tonight, the Badgers are capable of scoring in bunches. Going forward, UW’s offense must start on the defensive end.
“We were able to create live-ball turnovers and run in transition and make good decisions. We got a lot of guys who can shoot it,” Gard said. “That puts the pressure on a defense in transition in terms of covering shooters.”
This is a team that can get hot from behind the arc when set up properly. Trice has struggled to set up the offense so far, and few outside of junior forward Nate Reuvers have proved they can be relied on to provide consistent scoring. For now, that job rests with the defense.