Wisconsin was 16-0 once. That feels like ages ago, even if it’s been just 15 days. They were 16-0, winning their first three conference games, one of those games by 27 points at Northwestern.
Fifteen days later, Jan. 29 came and went, taking with it much of the remaining respect for the No. 14 Wisconsin basketball team (17-4, 4-4) as it fell at home to that same Northwestern team Wednesday, 65-56.
The Kohl Center was quiet for much of the game, but there were points where it seemed ready to rock. The basketball team let them down each time.
The first came just moments after tipoff, when Ben Brust connected on a 26-foot three-point try from the top of the key. Wisconsin’s leading hoister gave the Badgers a 3-0 lead. Just 50 seconds later, teammate Traevon Jackson matched him with a three of his own.
A few weeks earlier, it took the Badgers five-plus minutes to get six points against the Wildcats (11-11, 4-5). Wisconsin had an early lead on topping its early January blowout in Evanston, Ill. Only thing is, that was it for Wisconsin until just before the 11-minute mark.
By then Northwestern had erased the 6-point Wisconsin lead and quieted the Kohl Center for the first time, soon to be its common state for much of the game.
In fairness, an early lead is rarely fully sustainable. The Wildcats earned their way back to a 1-point halftime deficit. Meanwhile, Wisconsin was shooting just 25 percent from the field. The Kohl Center had reason to be mum.
But the Badgers gave it a reason to exit the slumber.
Wisconsin grabbed three offensive rebounds in the first few minutes of the second frame, leading to five second-chance points. Brust was involved again. Five-straight points from the senior guard (including his third triple of the game) brought the team in white back up six points at 30-24 with less than 16 minutes remaining.
Northwestern first-year coach Chris Collins called a timeout. He knows how the Kohl Center can help force a game from close to far gone. He was an assistant coach at Duke in 2009 when the then-No. 6 Blue Devils lost hold of their undefeated record and the Grateful Red poured onto the floor.
“All I said to them was ‘Look, we were down six to nothing … and we came right back,’” Collins said. His 6-foot-5 junior guard JerShon Cobb promptly answered his call, connecting on his first three of the game; a shot Collins figured was the biggest shot all night. “It kind of got us back going, making it a one-possession game.”
“Those are times, I like to call them breaking points,” Collins said. “In games when you are on the road, teams hit a couple shots. They’re getting a lead a little bit. It’s kind of that time — does your team break or do you fight back?
“Fortunately we hit a couple shots and got right back in the game.”
One could almost argue that was when Wisconsin — not Northwestern — broke. Their next field goal came with less than three minutes remaining. By then — after a 12-plus minute break without a bucket — the Wildcats had built a 13-point lead and were cruising to their first ever win at the Kohl Center.
Much like that night 15 days ago, during Wisconsin’s first loss of the season at Indiana, the Badgers had a formidable second-half lead and allowed the other team to not only tie the game, but also take control.
Jan. 29 could have been an instance where one team was hitting shots and another simply wasn’t. Or it could have been another peak into Wisconsin’s newfound inability to hit the accelerator in the moments that matter most.
“We lead most of the game and Northwestern is just hanging around,” junior guard Josh Gasser said. “We couldn’t hit enough shots to stretch the lead. Before you know it, five, six possessions and they really attacked us.”
Faltering in certain moments of momentum throughout January have now bitten the Badgers on multiple occasions. Not increasing a lead or allowing a team to hang around, soon enough those ball-screen-aided jump shots begin to fall just like they did against Michigan 11 days ago.
Things start to happen for the team that hangs around, be it at the Kohl Center, in Evanston, or next door in pick-up hoops at the SERF. It happened for Northwestern center Alex Olah.
The 7-foot sophomore from Romania, who had attempted just more than a dozen three-pointers this season (connecting on just two of them), fired his only three-point attempt from the left wing. It went in and extended the Northwestern lead to 12.
One reporter called it a “backbreaker” when Ryan asked his thoughts on the play.
“I was waiting for a manager to come off the bench and shoot next,” Ryan said, a bit surprised that Olah would all but seal the deal for the Wildcats. “The things that can happen in this game.”
As Wisconsin found out, plenty can happen, especially in the span of a few weeks.
Fifteen days separate Wisconsin from those extravagant graces of 16-0, when they would step on the gas and race off when they absolutely needed to. The Badgers haven’t done that very much in the past 15 days, and consequently, they’ve fallen, maybe to rock bottom, maybe not.