Sam Dekker — a regular at Wisconsin’s post game press conferences — didn’t talk to the media Wednesday night because he was busy. He was busy taking shots on the Kohl Center floor where just a few minutes earlier his team suffered a loss that would have seemed unthinkable just a month ago.
On Jan. 2, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team cruised into its Big Ten conference schedule with a 76-49 win over Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. putting them at 14-0.
That couldn’t feel any further away now as the problems keep piling up for the Badgers.
Just when defense looked like the biggest issue for No. 14 Wisconsin (17-4, 4-4 Big Ten), it shoots 26.3 percent from the field in its first loss ever at the Kohl Center to Northwestern (11-11, 4-5), falling 65-56.
Drew Crawford led the way for the Wildcats scoring a game-high 30 points on 10-15 shooting, playing all 40 minutes.
Senior guard Ben Brust was one of two Badgers to score in double figures with a team-high 21 points, but shot just 7-18 from the field as no player wearing cardinal and white shot better than 50 percent Wednesday.
Wisconsin as a team shot 15 of 57 from the floor or 26.3 percent — its lowest shooting percentage of the season and nearly 30 percent lower than it shot against Northwestern in the first meeting this season.
“If somebody would have told me that we would have shot, getting those shots that we had, that percentage, I’d have said no way,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Once you start missing, though, sometimes that basket starts getting pretty small and it obviously got pretty small.”
The game started promising enough for the Badgers hitting the first two shots they put up — both coming from behind the arc. But, from then on Wisconsin went ice cold missing its next 12 looks and hitting only six total field goals in the entire first half.
On the other end, Northwestern was finding success down low, scoring all but four of its first-half points in the paint while Wisconsin managed only four points in the lane.
The Wildcats were squeezing the driving lanes, making entry passes and drives to the rim difficult, but the Badgers weren’t too disappointed with their shot selection.
“We made the extra pass a few times just like you want to. Move it around the perimeter until we got an open look and some of the times we just didn’t knock them down,” Wisconsin junior guard Josh Gasser said. “We just have to stay confident. We know we can put the ball in the hoop, but tonight we didn’t.”
Despite Wisconsin’s shooting woes and its inability to score close to the rim it still owned a one point lead — 23-22 — going in to the half.
Wisconsin built a lead in the early part of the second half, up by 6 with just about 16 minutes left to play, but again the shots wouldn’t fall. Once freshman forward Nigel Hayes made a layup with 15:01 left in the game, the Badgers wouldn’t hit another field goal for the next 12 minutes and 15 seconds.
It wasn’t until the 2:46 mark in the second half that Wisconsin matched its scoring total (41) from the first half in its previous matchup with Northwestern.
It was the opposite end of the spectrum for the Wildcats who shot 56.5 percent from the floor in the second half — finishing 47.9 percent from the field for the game — mostly coming from Crawford’s 20 second-half points, but also from redshirt sophomore Tre Demps who scored 9 of his 10 points off of the bench in the second half.
“Every morning I wake and I say ‘maybe this is the day we are going to shoot well,’” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I’ve been waiting for a long time and I’m glad it was tonight.”
Demps gave NU the clear edge in the battle of the benches, as UW didn’t get its first points from a bench player until Hayes scored with 15:01 left.
Wisconsin made a push to come back with its full court press down 12 with just more than two minutes left. The pressure forced Northwestern into six turnovers, bringing the Badgers within four points, but the deficit proved to large to overcome dooming UW to its first loss to NU in eight meetings.
It’s clear Northwestern isn’t the same team Wisconsin saw about a month ago. The Wildcats have won four of their last six conference games, equaling the number of Big Ten wins Wisconsin owns.
“In one month’s time we have become a very tough group,” Collins said.
Now what looked to be a marquee match up of two of the Big Ten’s top teams in Saturday’s game between Ohio State and Wisconsin at the Kohl Center has become a contest between the two teams that might be struggling the most in the conference after Ohio State lost to Penn State Wednesday.
The only thing Ryan and his Wisconsin team can do is hope the ball bounces a little better than it did Wednesday night.
“I don’t know how you can look at those numbers do anything other than say ‘we’re due,’” Ryan said. “And hopefully that’s Saturday.”