In 14 of its 20 games this season, Wisconsin has turned the ball over 10 times or fewer.
Since taking care of the ball has been a staple of head coach Bo Ryan’s teams in the past, it comes as no surprise UW’s wins typically feature 10 turnovers or less.
“We’ve got a chance,” Ryan said, referencing his favorite “Dumb and Dumber” quote. “That’s what taking care of the ball does for you. Does it mean it’s automatic? No, but it gives you a chance.”
Yet, to say the Wisconsin men’s basketball team takes care of the ball would be, at the very least, a major understatement.
Through 20 games this season, the Badgers have turned the ball over just 189 times, or 9.5 times per game. That mark ranks No. 1 in the nation in terms of fewest turnovers per game and is 0.5 turnovers per game lower than the school record for turnovers in a season.
“Not turning the ball over and being able to get a shot off almost every time down the court is a big advantage to a team,” junior guard/forward Tim Jarmusz said. “It’s huge, and hopefully we can continue to do that.”
In each of its last three wins, Wisconsin has displayed impressive ball security as Ryan’s squad turned the ball over just five times in each contest.
Another thread between the Badgers’ three most recent victories has been comeback wins, as UW has erased deficits in the final 11 minutes to escape on the left hand side against Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.
Though Wisconsin’s ability to come from behind to win may not be directly correlated to the lack of turnovers, it certainly has played a role. Something else that may have played a significant part is just the unpredictable nature of the sport itself.
“We’ve been very lucky to get these last two wins for the way we’ve played,” senior guard Jason Bohannon said. “Most of the time when you’re down that much, you’re not able to get back out of that deficit.”
In discussing the Badgers’ ability to make such second-half comebacks, it is worth looking back at the six-game losing streak Wisconsin suffered through in the middle of conference play a year ago.
During those games, UW was on the other side of things, as the team squandered the lead late in games rather than coming back for the win.
In four of the six losses, Ryan’s squad led in the second half at least once. Perhaps the worst of the losses was Wisconsin’s devastating home collapse against Minnesota, in which the Badgers led by 14 points in the second half before falling 78-74 to the Gophers.
“Those six games right there, we have been in all of them, and we haven’t pulled them out,” Bohannon said last year after the sixth straight loss at Northwestern. “That’s on us. That’s not on coach or on anyone else. That’s our fault. He’s the one telling us the right things to do and we are just not getting it done. We have to get it done to win.”
During that six-game streak, the Badgers turned the ball over more than 10 times just once, but UW opponents scored an average of 13 points off turnovers.
The cost of such turnovers at critical points in the game was something that directly contributed to the losing skid.
According to Bohannon, it’s something from which the team has learned quite a bit, especially in terms of the value of every possession of every game.
“We all went through that and we all know what it was like having possessions that were empty possessions offensively and defensively giving them easy baskets,” he said. “We learned that each and every possession counts, and when you’re doing things the right way on consecutive possessions like that, you’re able to overcome those deficits.”
Sophomore guard Jordan Taylor, who joined the Wisconsin starting lineup two weeks ago when junior forward Jon Leuer went down with a left wrist injury, is one of the driving factors behind the Badgers’ low numbers of turnovers in 2009-10.
With an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.83, the native of Bloomington, Minn., leads the Big Ten and is second in the nation behind Notre Dame’s Tory Jackson, who has a 3.97 ratio.
While Taylor’s current numbers are impressive, he actually was better near the end of his freshman season. Over the final 10 games of the season, Taylor posted a 16:1 mark.
In looking at the team’s performance last year, though, Taylor actually took things one-step further than Bohannon, suggesting the entire 2008-09 season was a disappointment for the Wisconsin Badgers and their fans.
“That was kind of a wake up call last season, going 18-12,” Taylor said. “We knew that was way below expectations here. We’re still, this year, trying to get better every day.
“I think going into the summer we got into the gym knowing that,” he continued. “We’d have eight-minute workouts where we just focused on the last eight minutes going as hard as we can just closing out games and just working hard.”
That commitment to improving on both a personal and team level is something that has impressed Ryan — whose teams are 157-37 when winning the turnover battle. He believes it is reflected in the team’s low turnover totals.
“Our guys care,” he said. “That’s a statistic where you’re really making a statement to your fans, to your teammates… and to your peers, that ‘hey, I care about this game, the ball’s valuable, we need to get as many good looks at the basket as we can and we’re going to take care of the ball.’
“That’s what taking care of the ball means… and when it gets away from you, you’ve got to get it back.”