Devastating mid-season funks strike countless teams throughout the college basketball world every year. Each fanbase hopes their team can avoid dangerous skids in the thick of the season. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the funk has hit hard in the form of injuries, inconsistencies, and most importantly, losing.
Coming off of yet another Big Ten loss on the road against Northwestern on Jan. 23, Coach Greg Gard looked to flip the trajectory of the Wisconsin (12-7, 4-5 Big Ten) basketball season with a turnaround win on the road at Maryland (13-7, 4-5). This was the second road game in three days for Wisconsin, as the Badgers traveled to College Park just hours after the end of their rescheduled game against Northwestern.
Adding insult to injury was the absence of guard Max Klesmit, who sat out his second straight game with an upper body injury suffered against Penn State just over a week ago.
To little surprise, when a team plays two road games in just three days, the effort, efficiency and intensity of their performance noticeably declines. This was what the Badgers dealt with on Wednesday night as they failed to keep up with the Terrapins, eventually losing 73-55.
Unlike almost every game thus far, the Badgers’ offensive efficiency peaked in the opening minutes of the game. Freshman Connor Essegian — earning his third straight start — and the recovering Tyler Wahl quickly found their ways down the lane, accompanied by an early basket from Steven Crowl.
Crowl, who struggled to score against Northwestern’s double-team strategy, looked as though he would return to his early Big Ten season form — where he averaged nearly 20 points a game — in the early minutes on Wednesday. However, after his first score, the rest came few and far between, as he finished with just 11 points.
Nonetheless, both teams continued their hot starts in the first half as Essegian hit a wide open 3-pointer, the first of his career-high 19 points on the night. Jordan Davis, who recorded his career-high against Northwestern, also started hot with an NBA-range 3-pointer.
When the first stoppage of the game came in the form of an out-of-bounds call after nearly seven minutes, both offenses disappeared. This has been an unfortunate trend for the Badgers in their recent performances, as they lose offensive flow much quicker than they can sustain it.
Luckily, the Terrapins slowed down as well, as Wisconsin got to the free throw line and — to much relief — converted 85% of their shots from the line throughout the game, a much needed improvement from Monday’s 56% free throw shooting.
With his only three points of the game, Chucky Hepburn broke the Badgers’ first half stall-out and Essegian followed suit with a 3-pointer of his own, giving Wisconsin a 23-20 edge over Maryland with 5:30 left in the half.
Maryland experienced their own wake-up on offense in the form of a 12-0 scoring run that lasted four minutes, until Wahl broke the momentum with two of his relatively-quiet 13 points of the night. Thankfully, Crowl hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the half, lessening Maryland’s lead to 32-28 going into the break.
The opening minutes of the second half put the three day, two game road trip issues on full display. The Badgers came out of the locker room looking sluggish and sloppy, allowing Maryland to blow the game wide open within minutes. Defensive rebounding, defensive intensity, smart shot selection and transition defense were all missing for Wisconsin’s second half performance.
Another 3-pointer from Essegian helped slow down Maryland’s second half dominance, but the Terrapins continued to find success in whichever way they pleased on offense, mostly right down the lane — often with a trip to the free throw line included. With just seven minutes left to play in the game, Wisconsin stared down a 13 point deficit.
Continued scoring struggles produced little action in the closing minutes of the game, as Carter Gilmore slammed home two of his six points — the fourth highest point performance on the team, outscoring Hepburn and Davis.
The Terrapins subbed in their deep bench players with three minutes to play and held off any feeble attempts of a Badger comeback, downing Wisconsin with a final score of 73-55.
More than just a ‘stretch’
Classifying the recent performances that Wisconsin has produced as “offensive struggles” or “a struggling offensive stretch” is no longer appropriate. As the season has progressed, the scoring efficiency of the team as a whole has steadily declined game after game. Opponents are figuring out the offensive game plans well before the ball is tipped and are able to shut down Crowl more and more effectively.
Ever since his return from injury, Wahl has yet to produce a scoring performance reflecting his team-leading scoring numbers Hepburn — while still shooting a much improved 47% from three — is no longer the star leader that he was a year ago, and the rest of the supporting cast are inconsistent and often appear confused.
After Wednesday’s blowout loss, questions about the safety of the Badgers’ spot in the NCAA Tournament are arising, as each performance feels less and less like that of a worthy tournament team.
With opportunities to flip this season’s impending outcome diminishing quickly, Wisconsin will look to turn their season around again at the Kohl Center on Saturday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. as the Illinois Fighting Illini come to town. Coach Gard and the Badgers hope that the first home game with students back on campus will boost Wisconsin to a crucial win, live on Fox and the Badger Sports Network.