Aside from fans of Wisconsin men’s basketball, expectations for the 2010-11 Badgers were once again tempered.
Wisconsin, which various media outlets picked to finish outside the conference’s top four, finished with a 25-9 overall record, including a 13-5 Big Ten mark to finish in third place. After a disappointingly early exit from the conference tournament, the Badgers rebounded with Bo Ryan’s fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAAs.
Wisconsin returned three starters from last year, but preseason talk mainly surrounded the Badgers’ backcourt. Starting seniors Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes graduated the year before, which left junior Jordan Taylor and freshman Josh Gasser to take the reins of the offense.
Gasser began his college career with a stunning performance, scoring 21 points on 5-for-8 shooting in a season-opening 99-55 victory against Prairie View A&M. It was the second-highest scoring debut in Badger history, and prompted Ryan to anoint the guard as the third freshman to ever start for him in his UW coaching career. Wisconsin then dispatched North Dakota, 85-53, before falling in its first true road test against UNLV, 68-65.
Leuer and Taylor continued to lead the way for the Badgers all season. Both finished within the conference’s top five scorers, earning first team All-Big Ten accolades along the way. Taylor was also named second team All-American, while Leuer was given an honorable mention by the Associated Press.
Leuer led the team in points (18.3), shooting percentage (.470) and rebounds (7.2). Taylor led the nation with a 3.83 assist-to-turnover ratio and recorded 18.1 points and 4.7 assists per game. His performance during the season eventually led him to being included as a Bob Cousy Award finalist, despite being initially left off the ballot.
On Dec. 1, Wisconsin trounced North Carolina State, 87-48, to help the Big Ten win its second consecutive Big Ten/ACC Challenge. In a season fraught with road-woes, Wisconsin then managed to claim a 69-64 win on the road against in-state rival Marquette Dec. 11. In front of a raucous Bradley Center crowd, the Badgers overcame their poor shooting performance from the perimeter by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds. Gasser foiled a late-game comeback by the Golden Eagles when he knocked the ball loose out of Dwight Buycks’ hands and out of bounds with two seconds left. Buycks fumbled the ball and the possession arrow turned in Wisconsin’s favor.
Troubles on the road prevented Wisconsin from building a strong entrance into the conference season, beginning 2-2 after losses to Illinois and in overtime versus Michigan State.
But that preceded a 13-game stretch where Wisconsin won 11 contests. It began at the Kohl Center with revenge against No. 16 Illinois. Both teams shot poorly in the 76-66 UW win, but senior forward Keaton Nankivil hit three second-half 3-pointers to help topple the Illini.
Keaton Nankivil finished the season with the team’s highest 3-point shooting percentage of .457 and had a team-high 42 blocks, both of which were considerable improvements from his junior season.
UW then went on to shoot .490 and .554 from the floor against Indiana at home and Northwestern on the road. Gasser, who by this time had already lost and regained his starting 2-guard spot, produced the Big Ten’s first triple-double by a freshman since Michigan State’s Earvin Johnson in 1977, recording 12 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
In a game that, in hindsight, presented a considerable amount of foreshadowing, Wisconsin lost for the first time in 18 days, falling to Penn State, 56-52, Jan. 29 in Happy Valley. The Badgers had defeated the Nittany Lions in 12 consecutive games spanning eight years, but on that late January night, that changed.
Despite coming on the road, the loss still dampened the good vibes stemming from the Badgers’ late-December/early-January run. Yet, they weren’t gone for long as Wisconsin recovered three days later in Madison, as the Badgers topped then-No. 10 Purdue, 66-59. A four-game winning streak ensued, as Wisconsin proceeded to collect wins over Michigan State, Iowa (in overtime) and Ohio State.
The latter victory may be the highlight of the season, as the Buckeyes entered Madison Feb. 12 with a perfect 24-0 record and the nation’s No. 1 ranking. Yet, a boisterous Kohl Center crowd gave the Badgers a tremendous lift and UW emerged victorious, 71-67. At one point in the second half, Wisconsin trailed by 15, but Taylor – as he did on more than one occasion this season – donned the proverbial Superman cape just in time to save the day. UW’s point guard scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half and made six of the seven shots he attempted after Wisconsin trailed by 15. All together, Taylor directly influenced 34 of Wisconsin’s 39 points by scoring or assisting.
Next came a tough loss at Purdue four days later. But once again, Wisconsin began a four-game winning streak with victories over Penn State, Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana.
The Badgers’ final regular season game came March 6 in Columbus, Ohio against the Buckeyes. Ohio State shot an NCAA-record 14-of-15 (.933) from 3-point range, while senior guard Jon Diebler was 7-of-8 from beyond the arc and scored 27 points. Wisconsin, meanwhile, shot only 25-for-60 (.417) from the floor and 9-for-24 (.375) from 3-point range. The result was a 93-65 rout in favor of OSU and a damaging blow to UW’s postseason outlook.
Indeed, the damage inflicted by the Buckeyes carried over to the postseason. In their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, the third-seeded Badgers met Penn State for a third time. Wisconsin scored just 16 points in the first half and ultimately lost 36-33 in the lowest-scoring game in tournament history. The game was unmistakably ugly and Penn State certainly wasn’t much better. But without the victory, Wisconsin (.294 from the field and .095 from 3-point range) bore the brunt of the ensuing jokes, insults and criticisms.
The Badgers earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament’s Southeast region and drew the No. 13 Belmont Bruins in the first round. Leuer and Taylor combined for 43 points and Wisconsin had little trouble with Belmont, advancing with a 72-58 victory.
In the next round, Wisconsin had a much tougher time versus No. 5 seed Kansas State. Wildcats star Jacob Pullen won most of the highly touted point guard battle with the Badgers’ Taylor, scoring 38 points in 32 minutes of playing time. Yet it was UW that ultimately emerged victorious, as Taylor blocked Pullen’s game-tying 3-point attempt and the Badgers left with a 70-65 win.
In the Sweet 16, Wisconsin faced the eighth-seeded Butler Bulldogs, the 2010 runner-up. The Bulldogs shed their perennial underdog label with a 61-54 victory that really wasn’t that interesting – until the final 10 minutes. Butler held a 47-27 lead with 10:38 remaining, but Wisconsin finally got its offense together to mount a furious comeback, resulting in the deficit closing to four points with 37 seconds remaining. Taylor was huge down the stretch, nailing two consecutive 3-pointers and making several crucial free throws. Yet the Badgers’ luck ultimately ran out. Butler, meanwhile, survived Florida in the Elite Eight and advanced to its second Final Four, facing Virginia Commonwealth University Saturday night.