In a word, Wednesday night’s trip to Iowa City was a fiasco for Wisconsin.
Yes, the atmosphere in Carver-Hawkeye Arena last night was raucous and disruptive — it must’ve been, given how the free pizza and bobbleheads for fans prompted a court-rushing following Iowa’s second win of the season against Wisconsin. The Badgers even shot above 50 percent from the field. Rob Wilson continued his steady string of solid games with limited playing time, and he played even more than usual (17 minutes). Ben Brust contributed 10 points as he continues to pull himself out of a shooting slump, as did Josh Gasser with 14.
Ryan Evans also extended his string of double-digit scoring outings (now at seven), and suddenly, what’s there to complain about?
Ah yes, the final score. And the fact that this Badgers team, which continues to define itself by its love for the 3-pointer, couldn’t keep pace with a Hawkeyes team lying at 7-8 in Big Ten play. No doubt, Iowa benefited from playing on its home court in shooting 48 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from behind the arc. The great majority of that was senior guard Matt Gatens, who scored 33 points on 12-for-18 shooting (7-for-10 from 3-point).
The Badgers, for all the positives they set forth Wednesday night, hit only six of their 16 3-point attempts (37.5 percent). And of course, that once again limited their free throw attempts, which were sorely needed in the wake of a nine-point halftime deficit and an offense that might’ve been efficient, but not very timely.
UW reached the foul line only three times, and Evans took all three. He made two, and the Badgers were simply unable to keep pace with the hot-shooting Hawkeyes.
For a team that shoots 73.3 percent from the free throw line — third in the conference and 47th in the nation — Wisconsin is remarkably stubborn when it comes to actually getting there.
That statistic begs the question: Why in the world is that the case?
According to Phil Mitten, a Madisonian since his elementary school days and a UW basketball blogger for the past five years — including the last three for Buckys5thQuarter.com, widely considered one of the top Badger sports blogs — the answer may be due to some sort of lingering historical perspective.
“You used to have guys like [Alando] Tucker to get in the lane,” Mitten said in a phone conversation, referring to the former Badger and four-year NBA pro who led UW to the 2005 Elite Eight. “If you go back and look at the statistics, he probably helped skew our expectations for what a Bo Ryan-coached team would do in a normal year just because he was so far and away the foul generator on those teams.”
Mitten’s comments allude to the unique makeup of Ryan’s teams. On offense, the Badgers employ the swing philosophy, involving crisp passing along the perimeter and frequent off-ball movement. The principal notion is to create the best possible shot through ball movement, rather than by dribble drives to the basket.
To necessitate moving the ball around, post players often need to move further from the hoop, where they’re naturally most comfortable. Consequently, a Bo Ryan “big man” often has superior agility and ball skills, as he must be able to move around the court and handle the ball far from the basket. He also typically reaches the free throw line fewer times than the normal “big man” — this year, point guard Jordan Taylor leads the team in free throw attempts (130) by a wide margin and shooting guard Josh Gasser is third (64). For the season, the Badgers have attempted 439 free throws, ranking them 10th in the Big Ten and 319th in the nation.
“Well, I think we always want to get to the free throw line if we can,” assistant coach Gary Close said. “If the defense is just going to sag all the way around the basket and give you open shots, then you’re going to have to make some to make them come out and create lanes to drive. But we’ve always wanted to be not only a balanced team inside and out, but also a balanced team with a lot of guys scoring. When we are, we’re a little more effective.”
Recently, players like Jon Leuer (a 2011 second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks), Keaton Nankivil (currently playing in Germany) and Brian Butch (had a brief tenure with the Denver Nuggets) have filled that role of perimeter-friendly big man for Ryan, adding impressive shooting touches from the perimeter that have made the 3-pointer an increasingly more significant part of the offense.
This season, Wisconsin lies fourth in the Big Ten with a 9-6 record in conference play. Always a strong defensive team under Ryan, the Badgers allow just 51.7 points per game, fewest in the nation. UW also ranks sixth in the nation and second in the Big Ten in opposing field goal percentage at 37.7 percent.
Thus, it’s been Wisconsin’s offense that’s prevented the team from seizing a top spot this year in the 12-team conference. The Badgers rank 10th in scoring offense (64.0 points per game) and eighth in shots attempted (52.8 per game), as well as 11th in field goal percentage (42.7 percent).
The low number of shot attempts is typical of a swing offense like Ryan’s, again relying on patience to find the highest-percentage shot.
But if a team also doesn’t shoot many free throws, where do its points come from? This is where the 3-point shooting comes into play, and many observers wonder if taking so many shots farther from the hoop really helps facilitate Wisconsin’s offense. This season, the Badgers have attempted 322 3-pointers in conference play, second-most in the Big Ten.
“When you rely on the 3-point shot like they do here, you’re always going to stand the chance of either flaming out early or getting hot and going deep [in the NCAA tournament],” Mitten said. “They haven’t done the latter, so either they’re due, or it’s been amazing that they haven’t flamed out in the first round more often considering how much they rely on the 3-point shot.”
Mike is a senior majoring in journalism. What are your thoughts on the loss to Iowa? Send him a tweet @mikefiammetta.