Even before the opening tip of Wisconsin’s Big Ten tournament championship game with Ohio State at the United Center Sunday, it felt like the Badgers’ newfound mojo might start running dry.
Bo Ryan’s group, the one pegged for its ugly style and lack of “talent,” had orchestrated a stunning offensive revival over its last 60 minutes of play dating back to the second half against Michigan Friday. Ryan Evans transformed into a dynamic post threat as Wisconsin relied on great ball movement to score with refreshing consistency in the paint. It was almost magical, this team with no proven offensive star taking down one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses in Indiana.
But in a 50-43 loss to second-seeded Ohio State Sunday, Wisconsin was the victim of an effort from Ohio State that mirrored how the Badgers have gathered 23 wins this year in the country’s most competitive college basketball conference.
Per Ryan’s typical protocol, the Badgers’ success centered on limiting turnovers, outrebounding the opponent, hitting timely shots on the offensive end and – most crucial of all – lockdown defense. It is a system that has brought such success under Ryan, but this year, UW’s success hinged on those key principles more than ever.
When the shots could not find the bottom of the net and the defense made even just a few costly miscues, the results were nothing less than infuriating. Never was this clearer than in the second half against Purdue on Senior Day, a day that ended with Wisconsin’s worst loss of the season.
In the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, these principles melded with a hot-shooting offense and showed that the talk of Wisconsin’s potential to beat any team in the country when the pieces came together was more than coach-speak.
Within the opening minutes it was clear this championship game would mark a return to the Badgers’ old ways. Missing its first five shots of the game, Wisconsin players once again grew trigger-happy from outside and finished a measly 16.7 percent from three-point range for the game.
That inaccuracy, combined with a field goal drought that lasted for all of the game’s final seven minutes, brought a sense of head-pounding frustration familiar to Badgers’ fans. The great equalizer was a defensive effort that limited Ohio State to 38.5 percent from the field and allowed Thad Matta’s team to convert only one of its 16 three-point tries.
Only this time the Buckeyes’ defense – anchored by the tournament’s most outstanding player, junior guard Aaron Craft – was even better.
“Down the stretch we talked to each other and said, ‘Hey, shots may not be falling but our defense is going to win us this game,’” Craft said.
If it seems like Craft’s words should belong to Jared Berggren or another Wisconsin player, it’s because this is precisely Wisconsin’s own strategy for winning. The Badgers boast the Big Ten’s best scoring defense and have earned a reputation for shutting down the conference’s best playmakers (see Oladipo, Victor).
Yet the most troubling deficiency for Wisconsin Sunday came on the glass. OSU pulled down 11 more rebounds than UW, another area of the game the Badgers have dominated this year to overcome particularly poor nights shooting the ball.
Some of that was an issue of positioning and not adhering to the most simple of basketball principles – blocking out. But an equally worrisome issue was Ohio State simply had more energy and aggressiveness around the basket, and those loose balls turned into relatively easy baskets.
Sunday proved that for the Badgers to knock off elite national teams, all the pieces must fit squarely together at the same time. This team simply doesn’t have the offensive firepower to not win a strong majority of the rebounding battles and still emerge with stunning victory after stunning victory.
Wisconsin, it seems, can only keep its hands hot for the briefest of stretches. And when the shots are not falling, it must execute the other areas of Ryan’s system with near perfection. For this Badger squad, that will likely the difference between a deep tournament round and a first round loss to a dangerous Ole Miss team.
Ian is a senior majoring in journalism. How do you feel about UW’s chances in the NCAA tournament? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @imccue.