Wisconsin Basketball: Badgers start 3 game week with 66-63 loss to Northwestern

Jan 23, 2023; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Jordan Davis (2) shoots the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 23, 2023; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Jordan Davis (2) shoots the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

The Wisconsin Badgers finally played the twice-rescheduled game at Northwestern. After the disappointing 66-63 loss, they probably wished it would have been postponed a third time.

Highlights for Badgers

Jordan Davis was big for the Badgers early, as he and Northwestern’s Chase Audige were locked in a personal scoring duel. He had 7 of his team-leading 15 points in the first 5 minutes. He also had 6 rebounds before he eventually fouled out late in the game.

The scoring for Wisconsin was very spread out: Hepburn had 12 points, Wahl had 11,  and Essegian had 10. Crowl just missed the double-digit club with 8 points.

Crowl led the Badgers in rebounding with 9, Wahl had 5, and Essegian 4 Hepburn dished out 5 assists to pace Wisconsin. Wahl and Crowl chipped in 3 apiece themselves.

Areas of Concern

Wisconsin didn’t have a particularly great night shooting, only hitting 38.6% of the shots from the field and 10-31 (32.3%) from long range. Northwestern countered with 43.1% from the floor and 6-16 (37.5%) from 3-point land.

Inexplicably, Wisconsin continues to get out-rebounded by virtually every opponent. Tonight was no different, as the Wildcats held a slight 35-32 edge. With the Badgers’ height and athleticism, they should be dominating this statical category and improving their chances of success.

However, the game was, quite simply, lost at the foul line this evening. Northwestern went 16-18 (88.9%), something that you would expect from a coach from the Krzyzewski tree. Wisconsin struggled mightily, and only hit 9-16 (56.3%).

First half miscues

Tyler Wahl hit the first basket of the game, giving Wisconsin the initial 2-0 lead.  Wisconsin’s star wouldn’t score again until 19:46 in the second half. The offense just could not seem to find any rhythm in the first half of the game. After the Davis-Audige duel, Wisconsin would go almost 6 minutes without scoring. Luckily, Northwestern struggled as well and only went on a 7-0 run in that timespan.

The Wildcats implemented a double team almost as soon as any Badger big man got the ball down low.  Wisconsin’s front had a difficult time initially in finding the open man, but when they did so, their shots just weren’t falling.

The first half ended on a missed Wahl 3-pointer that junior 6’7″ forward Carter Gilmore tapped in at the buzzer. This play was not only impressive but seemed to provide the spark that Wisconsin needed.

Second-half adjustments and rally

Wisconsin started the second half in the exact same fashion as they did to start the game: a Tyler Wahl-made jumper. The Badgers erased a 6-point deficit and took their first lead since the 18:10 mark in the first half.

I’ve only been covering Wisconsin basketball for a few weeks now, but in that time I have heard the moans of some about Greg Gard’s ability to coach. For the second straight game, Wisconsin was down by 6 at half-time and came out in the second half to take the lead. The adjustments that were made were clear to see, as Wisconsin started to neutralize the double team with precision passes to the perimeter or the man cutting to the bucket.

While the first half was completely dominated by Northwestern, the second stanza was a topsy-turvy affair, with 17 lead changes and 7 ties. With the game tied at 62-62, a combination of good Wildcat defense with some questionable Badger shot selection led to a 2:34 second scoring drought by Wisconsin.

Their final point came on a last-second 3-point shot by Hepburn. It was no good but he was fouled, giving Hepburn 3 free throws and Wisconsin the chance at a miracle. He would need to make the first 2, miss the 3rd, and have the Badgers tip it in. Stepping to the foul line for the first time all evening, Hepburn missed the first one, virtually negating any chance at a miracle.

What went wrong?

This is a game Wisconsin should have won. Northwestern hadn’t played in 8 days because of COVID-19 issues, the lost a player in the first half to an injury and had another one foul out in the second half. Wisconsin’s talent level and athleticism are readily apparent, even to the untrained basketball eye. So why then are they sitting at .500 in the Big Ten and losing to a team they had beaten 7 straight times?

This might be where some of the Gard criticism is warranted. Rebounding and controlling the glass, as well as successfully shooting foul shots, are fundamental concepts. They may not be the “sexiest” or most fun things to work on in practice, but simply put, they win games. I’ve seen many Big East teams that couldn’t make a foul shot if their lives depended upon it. However, when you can shoot as effectively as Wisconsin can from both the field and 3-point range, poor foul shooting is unacceptable.

I continue to be amazed at the Badgers’ inability to be more successful on the glass. Some of the problems come from positioning and that can arise from hurried or poor shot selection. I’ve seen the grit and moxie that Wisconsin’s bigs have, so it isn’t from a lack of heart.

Onto Maryland

In less than 48 hours, Wisconsin will be tipping off against the Marland Terapins. The Terps enter the contest with a 12-7 overall record, in 11th place in the Big Ten with a 3-5 mark. They gave Purdue all they could handle Sunday afternoon, losing 58-55 in West Lafayette, Indiana. You won’t want to miss my breakdown and matchup analysis.