There’s blood in the water. And the sharks are circling.
The last three games for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team have been shocking to say the least. In a season of Big Ten play where nothing is guaranteed except surprise, the Badgers have still managed to surprise themselves and most of the league by falling apart at the seams in their last three games.
A Senior Day loss against Purdue, a spanking at the hands of Michigan State and what should have been a loss at Penn State— minus the solid play of Sam Dekker and a long haul by Traveon Jackson — have Wisconsin playing at its worst at the time it matters most.
It’s not exactly shocking. Say what you want about the regular season success of Bo Ryan but lately, when it comes tourney time, the moniker “Bo Knows” is replaced with “No Shows” when it comes to Wisconsin basketball.
Let’s look at the career of Jordan Taylor in the Big Ten tournament. Over four years, the senior won just one game in the conference tournament. The victory came last year against the Indiana Hoosiers, mainly thanks to fellow senior Rob Wilson’s 30 point performance.
In 2011, the team lost to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament’s quarterfinals. It was perhaps the worse game of basketball played by Wisconsin in the last decade, as the team lost 36-33 after shooting 29 percent from the floor and an incredible nine percent from three.
In 2010, Wisconsin lost its first game of the conference tournament again in the quarterfinals, this time to Illinois 58-54. In 2009, it was the same story, as UW fell to Ohio State in the quarterfinals, 61-57.
That’s right, the last time the Badgers won more than one game in the conference tournament was 2008, when the team won the whole thing. With that in mind, it’s a fair point to say Wisconsin has been inconsistent come conference tournament time.
So, why is it lately that UW can’t get it done when it matters most? Why is it that the Badgers go into every Big Ten and NCAA tournament the last few years with a fan base that has no idea what team will show up on the floor?
First off, let’s be clear: Wisconsin’s highly-efficient swing offense ceased to exist a long time ago.
It used to be a thing of beauty; a methodical dance where the ball entered the post with every player from guards to centers getting down on the low blocks. Now, the last four years the Badgers have ran an offense that simply consists of passing around the arc and chucking up a three pointer when the shot clock is running low, making for some horrendous offensive performances and long scoreless droughts in games.
Does the devolution of the swing and offensive struggles result from a talent drop off? You could make that argument, but it’s not the reason why. When the Badgers dropped that stinker to the Nittany Lions in 2011, the team had the talented frontcourt of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil. And both of those players could post up at will.
But, then again, players like Leuer and Nankivil are exhibits of where the problems stem from. Ryan loves having bigs that can stretch the floor with their three-point prowess and Nankivil and Leuer could shoot from the outside with the best of them.
However, as is the case with outside shooting, sometimes both of the centers would go cold and drift for an easy shot outside rather than post up hard down low, even when they had mismatches.
It’s a problem that started out in 2008 with Brian Butch, ground zero for the devolution of the swing. Butch had a strong outside touch and gradually began to choose three-point shots over posting up every possession, even though he usually found the right balance of both.
After post players like Butch and Greg Steimsma graduated in 2008 and Marcus Landry in 2009, the Badgers have lacked a legitimate threat in the paint, resulting in a much more three-happy, pass-around the arc, inconsistent style of offensive play.
Percentage-wise, the numbers don’t lie. In 2008, three-point attempts made up just 32 percent of shots from the field. What about in the 2011-12 season? Well, 41 percent of all shots were from beyond the arc, highlighting the change. In the present season, the Badgers have shot 39 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
The last two year’s Wisconsin had been considered wildly successful under Ryan—in 2006-07 where the team was at one point ranked No. 1 and in 2007-08 when the team won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles—the team shot under 600 threes. In 2012, the Badgers shot 775 attempts from deep.
What are the reasons for this vast turnaround in offensive shot selection? Well, for one, Wisconsin doesn’t have the quality of players they used to have. There hasn’t been a player like Devin Harris, Alando Tucker or even Brian Butch since 2008. Dynamic scorers are hard to come by and for the last five years there hasn’t been a truly dominant offensive player at Wisconsin that can create his own shot at will both inside and outside.
Sure, Jordan Taylor was terrific, but he wasn’t at the level of a Harris or Tucker.
But that might be changing. For anyone who has watched Sam Dekker this season, the numbers are strikingly similar to what Harris and Tucker put up in their freshman campaigns. The skill set offensively of Dekker is unparalleled to anyone that the Badgers currently have on their roster and he’s the only player who can consistently drive past his defender and get to the lane.
And he could be getting help. Next year, Wisconsin brings in another five-star recruit like Dekker in his old AAU teammate, Bronson Koenig, as well as two highly-touted forwards in Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown.
Listen readers, I’m not claiming to know more than coach Ryan. Far from it. But, when the strength of a team offensively lies in shooting threes, the results you get are going to be inconsistent, and that’s exactly what Wisconsin has been the last few years on offense.
Just look at the Badgers’ three-point shooting the last three games. Against Purdue, the team only made 6-of-27 three point attempts (22 percent), as half of Wisconsin’s shots came from deep. On the road at Michigan State, the team converted just 4-of-23 trifectas (17 percent).
So, maybe it’s time for the Badgers to stop taking the open looks their opponents are giving them beyond the arc, maybe it’s time to just force it inside to Jared Berggren. Because as it stands at present day, the Badgers’ inconsistent shooting has the team prone to another early exit in the Big Ten tourney and a potential upset-victim in March Madness.
Nick is the Sports Editor of the Badger Herald and a fifth-year senior majoring in English and history. Besides covering men’s basketball, football and softball at the University of Wisconsin, Nick also hosts “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” on 91.7 WSUM Sunday’s at 4-5 p.m. and appears on the WBA award-winning show ” The Student Section” on Monday’s from 4-6 p.m.