The Sum Of All (Badgers’) Fears


It had been 3 years since the Wisconsin men’s basketball team lost back-to-back games at home. Bo Ryan’s Badgers had lost only 12 times in the Kohl Center. It had reached the point where upsetting highly-ranked opponents wasn’t an impressive rarity, it was an expectation.

That was before Wisconsin dropped consecutive games to the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan State Spartans to begin the conference season 0-2 at home. Suddenly, one of the steadiest traditions in college basketball–Wisconsin’s dominance at home–looks shaky at best. It’s one thing to lose to Michigan State, a top-15 team that boasts talent, experience, and one of the best coaches in college basketball. It’s quite another to lose to an unranked Iowa squad that won only 4 conference games all of last season.

And after all that, the wheels finally fell off Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Wisconsin played arguably the worst game of its season last weekend, falling to the Wolverines 59-41. The Badgers couldn’t shoot, couldn’t defend, couldn’t rebound, couldn’t compete.

There can be no doubt–something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin. Before it can be fixed it must be found. So let’s find it.

Three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff.
Through the first 14 games of their season, the Badgers were an exceptional three-point shooting team, hitting over 41% of their shots from deep. In their last three games, they’ve made only 21%. It’s only three games, so the immediate hunch has to be “it’s just an unfortunate blip”. But they’ve shot 70 three-pointers in those three games. That’s enough to give the slump a little weight. The Badgers have always lived-and-died by the deep ball to at least some extent, but it’s really killing them right now.

If they’re not making threes, they’re probably not scoring much.
At almost 36%, Wisconsin is 26th in the nation in percentage of total points coming from three-pointers. They’re 49th in percentage of total shots coming from deep. In the non-conference season, this was hardly an issue–the Badgers were scorching behind the arc and spent much of the early season in the top-10 for three-point efficiency. But Wisconsin hasn’t adjusted to the recent drop-off. Shot attempts in Ryan’s system are a de facto zero-sum game, so if one type of shot isn’t working, they should ideally shift some of those attempts inside. Instead, they’ve been shooting more from long range: almost 25% of their total three-point attempts on the year have come in the last three games. Volume shooting, even if it’s still reasonably efficient, doesn’t mesh well with the low-possession, high-percentage style Wisconsin has always employed.

They can’t get into the paint or near the rim.
So let’s say the Badgers do want to cut down on the long-range shooting a bit. In that case, they’re going to want to get the ball in as close to the rim as possible (if they’re just gonna be shooting jumpers, they might as well stay behind the line). Two main ways you can get the ball in close to the basket: you can physically move there when you have the ball, or you can throw it at a dude who’s already there. The Badgers are bad at both right now because they’re doing two things poorly: screening and passing. The sad truth about the latter is that the Badgers don’t have many good passers–Jordan Taylor and Josh Gasser are the essentially the only options (Ben Brust has flashed playmaking ability, but he still plays too quick and forces passes). Outside of the NBA talent factories, most teams don’t have a stable of great passers, but the deficiency hurts Wisconsin in particular because of the emphasis on constant ball movement from every player. Jordan Taylor isn’t setting up the offense and darting through traffic to find open guys, he’s bringing the ball across halfcourt and tossing it to Ryan Evans on the wing. This isn’t to say other guys haven’t or can’t make plays, but it hasn’t been happening consistently of late. Passing into the post has been particularly troubling, hurt in part by Wisconsin’s limited size outside of Jared Berggren. It seems like the absence of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil’s imposing figures has really been felt in Big Ten play.

As for screening, I was left shaking my head as I watched the Michigan game, seeing screener after screener awkwardly twist away from defenders and amble back to the post. Wisconsin doesn’t typically use much of a screen-and-roll game until late shot-clock situations, but it’s about the only way for Badger perimeter players to get into the middle of the court. Bad screens mean no dribble-penetration and fewer open perimeter looks. Not asking guys to start throwing elbows, but seriously, somebody throw an elbow!

The halfcourt line is like a speed trap.
When a new coach takes over a basketball team, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to hear two things: “We want to push the tempo”, and “we want our defense to jump-start our offense”. We can be sure the former lies well outside the priorities of Bo Ryan, but the latter? He’s constantly harping on it. In fact, after the Badgers were destroyed by Michigan, Ryan praised the Badgers’ defensive intensity and reiterated his desire for the team to buckle down on the defensive end.

I understand the intention, and for many teams an improvement on defense can jump-start the offense in transition. But Wisconsin never pushes the ball in transition unless it has a clear breakaway. As good as the Badgers’ defense has been this year, it’s not reliant on forcing turnovers or even blocking shots. The Badgers contest shots like mad, grab the rebound, and set up their offense. Offensive efficiency doesn’t magically improve simply because your opponent missed a few shots. It’s a function of how you run that offense after a defensive stop.

Everybody’s being too deferential.
One of Wisconsin’s biggest strengths each year is it’s offensive balance and versatility. Rarely is the team led by a go-to scorer who monopolizes the offense–since 2005, only once has the team had fewer than 4 players using at least 20% of possessions (2007, Alando Tucker’s senior year). Everybody’s always looking to make the extra pass to turn a good shot into a great shot. Well, not every possession yields great shots. Sometimes you’ve got to make something happen. Unfortunately, the low-possession style puts tremendous emphasis on getting those great shots. When the ball bounces around for 25 seconds before finding its way back to Jordan Taylor (who inevitably has a crummy screen set for him), that’s not a good shot. The Badgers have to take it upon themselves to get moving, get open, and get the ball to the right guy. There’s been too little swing action, post-mismatches, and backdoor cuts for my liking. Predictability is death in conference play–the Badgers need a little improvisation.