Something strange happened Sunday on the Kohl Center floor as Wisconsin brought down a pesky Penn State squad 52-46.
The rare and recently absent occurrence was that the Badgers finally proved they hadn’t completely lost their stroke. They could still hit 15-footers from the floor and build a lasting rhythm from beyond the 3-point arc. While Wisconsin fans may have released a long sigh of relief after the Badgers netted 48 percent of their shots in the first half from the floor and 42.6 percent in the game, it cemented the fact that UW will only go as far as its shooting takes it as March Madness grows nearer.
The solid shooting performance against the Nittany Lions followed a five-game stretch during which Bo Ryan’s squad averaged a field goal percentage a hair under 37 percent. That undesired run was capped by a beatdown in East Lansing at Michigan State when Wisconsin sunk just 34 percent of its shots. If fans learned anything in these games when they weren’t busy throwing objects at their televisions, it was the vulnerability that any team that relies so heavily on outside shooting suffers from.
Although the Badgers are well on their way to another overachieving season — locking up their 20th victory Sunday and currently sitting at fourth in the Big Ten standings — don’t expect a deep tournament run. An opening round win is nearly a sure bet, as Wisconsin is projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to earn a No. 4 seed and likely won’t be any lower than a fifth seed. However, its streakiness shooting the rock will likely spell doom in the one-and-done NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps the hot shooting against Penn State — which included five straight 3-pointers by the Badgers midway through the first half — was just the beginning of a hot-handed run that will have Jordan Taylor & Co. dancing through one of the most unpredictable events in sports. But count me out of that optimistic group.
Unless Taylor channels last year’s “let me take care of this one, fellas” mentality and starts once again hitting outrageous threes with a defender in his face, the quality teams the Badgers are bound to face in March know the key to shutting down the Wisconsin offense is to take away open outside looks. The only way to avoid such a fate is if a player like Ryan Evans or Mike Bruesewitz rediscovers an offensive rhythm and proves they are a consistent, dangerous threat from outside.
If history is any indication of how Wisconsin will fare in the all-important season finale, then Ryan’s team is bound to have a night where the net eludes them and his team struggles through costly scoring droughts. Since the Badgers started playing competitive teams, which, by my estimation, started with Bradley (sorry Kennesaw State), they have never managed to string together more than four games in a row shooting at least 40 percent from the field. That stretch itself came against the rather underwhelming likes of UW-Milwaukee, Savannah State, Mississippi Valley State and Big Ten bottom-feeder Nebraska.
Even more disheartening is that, since conference play began Dec. 27, the Badgers have not put together more than two consecutive games where they nailed at least 40 percent of their jumpers. And it’s not like sinking four out of every 10 shots is a proven formula for victory. It’s respectable, but not exactly lighting up the court (for comparison, Creighton leads the nation with a stellar 51.1 percent clip from the floor).
What’s kept Wisconsin in the top 25 polls this season is something that has become a staple of Ryan-coached teams — defense. More specifically, refusing to give up easy, uncontested looks to opponents and forcing gritty, often ugly defensive battles. After leading the nation in field goal percentage defense for much of the year, the Badgers currently rank fifth by holding opponents to a 37.4 conversion rate and also lead the nation in scoring defense.
The ability to slow down even the most fleet-footed of offenses can be credited to ability of players like Evans and Jared Berggren — who leads the team with 45 blocks on the year — to step up on the defensive end of the floor. Defense is an aspect of the game UW fans have learned to respect after seeing their team appear in the NCAA tournament all 10 seasons Ryan has colored the Wisconsin sideline with his always-entertaining faces.
But there’s just one problem. As Wisconsin faces unfamiliar teams from conferences like the ACC and Big East with entirely different styles of play, its ability to defend the shot will probably be a greater challenge. Additionally, post powers such as Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger have confirmed Badgers fans’ fear that their team has no answer to high-percentage scorers who get their points near the hoop.
Wisconsin has managed to eek out wins when the shots aren’t falling — against Minnesota (35.8 percent), Nebraska (31.3) and Penn State the first time around (35.4) — but it’s no coincidence that those squads stand respectively at No. 9, 11 and 12 in the Big Ten race. It remains impressive and serves as a testament to Ryan’s coaching that, even without the much-anticipated scoring output from preseason All-American Taylor, UW remains in the conference title race this late in the year.
It’s been a season of highs and lows, with nights of stellar shooting and ones where it seemed like a plastic shell guarded the rim. Such streaky shooting teams simply aren’t the ones that find themselves on historical, thrilling rides in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think he’s nothing more than a pessimist who sees the worst in every Badgers’ team, regardless of sports? Let him know by tweeting @imccue.