While there are no excuses to explain three straight losses, the gap that Tyler Wahl’s absence has left is undoubtedly growing by the game. On Saturday, Wisconsin’s leading scorer sat for the third straight game, and Wisconsin failed to produce a solid performance without him yet again, losing in Indiana 63-45.
The loss comes as no surprise given the Badgers scoring their second-lowest point total all season. A 43-42 win over Dayton is the only time Wisconsin has scored less points, and when the Badgers try to defend Indiana’s All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis in the paint, 45 points will not win a game in the Big Ten.
Indiana’s Assembly Hall is always a hostile place for an away team to play in, and the crowd got to both teams early. After over six minutes of play, the two teams could only score four points each. An opening stretch of airballs, bad shots, fouls and turnovers encouraged both coaches to shift through their benches early. Of course, quality defense also contributed to the low scoring first half.
The Badgers could not find an open look from anywhere on the floor, especially in the paint. Steven Crowl, who was averaging close to 20 points per game coming into Bloomington, struggled to produce anywhere near his recent performances. Just five points in 30 minutes turned out to be his second-worst performance of the year, behind four points against Kansas. However, Indiana continued to substitute their big men quickly in order to shut Crowl down.
On the other hand, Indiana’s Jackson-Davis was a constant defensive target for the Badgers. Crowl, Carter Gilmore, Markus Ilver and Chris Hodges all attempted to guard Jackson-Davis with no positive result.
As the Hoosiers initiated a full-court press late in the first half, Connor Essegian finally broke loose for three of his team-leading 14 points on the day. Nonetheless, the Badgers produced just 20 points in the first half, but also held the Hoosiers to just 21 at the break.
In the opening minutes of the second half, it became clear that whichever team could better continue their defensive momentum from the first would find more benefit on the offensive side of the court.
With this idea in mind, Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard’s instructions to double Jackson-Davis was executed just seconds into the half, as Crowl and Gilmore trapped him in a corner. But, when one man is doubled, another is open. This common knowledge bit Wisconsin quickly and fiercely, as the Hoosiers opened up a quick eight point run.
Wisconsin continued the second half without a point for almost seven minutes until Hepburn found his way inside for a layup. But, by then, the Hoosiers’ lead had blossomed to 17 in front of the roaring home crowd.
Essegian hit a 3-pointer on perhaps the only open shot that the Badgers got all game, but Indiana’s Jackson-Davis was too much to handle for any Wisconsin big man on defense. The only deterrence to Indiana’s attempts at closing the game out was Essegian, as he contributed another five points in response to Indiana’s large lead.
In the end, Indiana’s home performance was too much for Gard’s players to handle, as the Hoosiers blew the game open in the second half and downed Wisconsin by 18 points.
The Big Ten is still one of the most competitive conferences in college basketball. With zero undefeated teams remaining, upsets on the road and at home, and constant standings shuffles, there is no doubt that if the Badgers want to climb out of their eighth place hole, the loss at Indiana certainly has to be the last of the current losing streak.
With that being said, improvements were made in some areas between the loss at home to Michigan State and Saturday’s game. The defensive intensity that was previously missing returned at full force, at least until the last stages of the game. Outside of guarding Jackson-Davis, the rest of the Badgers defense returned to a better form — one that helped them win games earlier in the season.
As for the personnel that Coach Gard has been working with, there should be no doubts that the entire team will benefit from Tyler Wahl’s eventual return, which is expected to be on Tuesday against Penn State. This, alongside Crowl’s dominant run, Essegian’s continuing development and Hepburn’s growing leadership will allow the Badgers to reorientate themselves and get back on track in the Big Ten. A favorable next three matchup for the Badgers, though two are away, will surely help with this as well.
The Badgers will look to break their skid at home on Jan. 17 against a middle-of-the-pack Penn State team. Wisconsin will also be sporting their black “By the Players” alternate uniforms for the first time. The game tips off at 7:30 p.m. at the Kohl Center and can be found on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.