The secret, it seems, is in the defense.
It is the defense that powered the Wisconsin men’s basketball team to a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten and a run to the Big Ten tournament championship game in Chicago last weekend. It is the defense that has allowed the Badgers to head into the NCAA tournament Friday with 23 wins despite sitting in the bottom 40 percent nationally in scoring offense. And it very well may be the defensive play that determines just how long the madness lives on for the Badgers this March.
“That’s a staple of this program,” fifth-year senior forward Jared Berggren said. “Like I’ve said all year long, the shots aren’t always going to drop for us but our defensive effort can always be there. You don’t go cold on defense, it’s something you can bring every single night, just have the right mindset to work and stick to our rules.”
A system rooted first and foremost in never surrendering easy transition baskets to the opponent is exactly why critics peg Wisconsin basketball as “unwatchable.” But head coach Bo Ryan has carefully assembled a group of players who value offensive efficiency over individual numbers.
Even those who don’t arrive on campus with the defensive pedigree required in Ryan’s system — junior guard Ben Brust and freshman forward Sam Dekker are prime examples — learn to love the other side of the floor. They find pleasure in watching opposing players unravel, consumed by the frustration of not finding their usual offensive rhythm.
“It’s kind of fun because you can really see how uncomfortable they are, and they’ll even say some stuff and they’ll just start missing shots,” said Dekker, a sharpshooter who Ryan has often singled out for defensive lapses this year. “That’s something we predicate ourselves on—is influencing the flow of the game and playing at our pace.”
Defense has formed the foundation of Wisconsin’s success for more than a decade under Ryan, but this year it has buoyed this team even more so than in recent years.
Without a scoring defense that ranks 10th nationally and tops in the Big Ten (55.9 points per game), UW might not have to worry about an NCAA tournament game to begin with. Opponents’ numbers slump enough when playing the Badgers that they come in at No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense rankings.
Wisconsin’s 42.5 percent team field goal percentage ranks sixth in the Big Ten, the second-lowest rate of any team in the conference that qualified for the 68-team NCAA tournament field. The two top Big Ten squads in that category — Indiana and Michigan — fell to the Badgers on back-to-back days in Chicago, and UW will need a similar defensive effort for the chance to make a run to the West regionals or beyond.
But it took more than simply suffocating defense to upset two teams ranked in the AP top 10.
“If you look back at our runs, ever since I’ve been here, especially my sophomore [year] and even last year, we played really good defense and we were very efficient on offense,” senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “That’s the biggest thing. You can’t be inefficient, you can’t be missing a lot of shots. You got to shoot a pretty good percentage, got to get hot at the right time.”
And Bruesewitz’s theory checks out. Wisconsin has played in six NCAA tournament games over the past two years, shooting an average of 45.5 percent from the field in its four victories (Belmont, Kansas State, Montana and Vanderbilt) and 36.7 percent in its two losses (Butler and Syracuse). Over that stretch, the Badgers have never finished worse than 42 percent from the floor and survived onto the next round.
When Wisconsin finds that offensive groove, players and coaches agree, it can create a spark that carries over to the defensive side.
“Any time you can score it obviously energizes your defense and Sunday [against Ohio State] it was a grinder, it was like two teams that have played each other for the third time and both had been slugfests,” UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. “I think the difference was in [UW’s 71-49 win over Ohio State Feb. 17]. Here we were able to make some shots and get some separation.”
But sinking shots with any consistency is much easier said than done for Wisconsin. After dual 68-point games in wins over the Wolverines and Hoosiers in Chicago, the Badgers managed only 43 against the Buckeyes in the championship game, hitting just 38.3 percent of their shots.
So the journey begins Friday against Ole Miss, who boasts the seventh-highest scoring offense in the country. UW’s defense will likely be its usual stringent self, prepared to chase sharpshooter Marshall Henderson off the three-point line and hold the Rebels comfortably below the 78.2 points they average per game.
The question marks arise on the opposite end of the floor.
“I think a lot of the same shots have been there all year, from game one to where we are now,” Brust said. “Whether [the offense is] up or whether it’s down, we know that we need to play defense. Because if we’re playing defense we’re going to most likely be in the game and we could win some games when we’re not shooting well and we play defense.”
However, as the Big Ten tournament final ultimately proved, defense can only act as the Badgers’ saving grace for so long. Against the nation’s premier teams in a high pressure one-and-done setting, there is no second chance to recover from an off night shooting the ball.