It's hard to find things to criticize about a defense that ranks No.1 in the country. Coach Ryan has an outstanding defensive system in place. Jordan Taylor and Josh Gasser are as tough as any two guards in the country defensively. They rarely allow any dribble penetration. You have Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans, who are extremely versatile forwards who can muscle up to bigger forwards in the post, but also chase around screens and move their feet with smaller, quicker forwards. And Jared Berggren has been a great shot-altering and shot-blocking presence inside.
In these first two Big Ten losses, you saw Iowa and Michigan State pick on two aspects of the Badgers defense that are normally rock-steady. Against Iowa, transition defense became an issue. Twenty-five missed threes leads to 25 long rebounds, which can basically outlet passes for a team that loves to fast break. Iowa pushed the tempo off of these misses, and hit a large percentage of their pull-up jumpers in transition, which normally, a good transition defense will afford to get up to save a lay-up. And it doesn't help that a Bruesewitz look-alike goes for 18 points.
Against Michigan State, the Spartans found their points inside and went at the interior of the Badgers defense. Draymond Green is as tough as a defensive assignment in the Big Ten. Michigan State's guards drove hard off of their ball-screen sets, forcing a switch. Their guards had opportunities to get in the lane off of our bigs, and our guards had the responsibility of boxing out and trying to keep Payne, Nix and Green out of the post, leading to offensive rebounds. These losses were no slouches. Michigan State is obviously a high-caliber opponent. And under Fran McCaffrey, Iowa hoops may be back for years to come. It's not an ideal start to the Big Ten season, but no game is a given in the Big Ten, and it's very early. There have been worse stretches…
Speaking of worse stretches, our 2008-2009 team went on a six game losing streak in the Big Ten, after starting 3-0. It was a culmination of a tough schedule, opponents hot shooting, poor execution on our part and flat-out bad luck. We had no "mojo," to quote Austin Powers. Our defense was not synced up, our offense wasn't clicking and we were in a funk. After examining each game, there was a lot technically we could have done to prevent any of the losses, but sometimes, the ball doesn't bounce your way. Other times, you can have several breakdowns throughout a game, but you can escape with a victory. In the middle of a Big Ten season, with game after game, there's no time to pout and feel sorry for oneself. There are no games that can be taken for granted. After every game, win or loss, you take a look at the things you can control.
We go through the film as a team with our coaches and examine what we did well and what we can improve on. Coach Ryan always has the focus on what we can learn to help us improve us for the next game. The way Coach turns our focus to "next" is how Wisconsin teams are able to improve as the season goes on, and how players improve over the course of their careers. Yet, it's a lot more difficult to focus on the next game, when there is so much disappointment with your previous losses.
Our 2008-2009 team was able to come back from a six game losing steak, make the NCAA Tournament, and get to the second round. A few things can fuel this come back and break out of a funk. One is strong senior leadership. Marcus Landy and Joe Krabbenhoft refused to let the trend of losing continue. Jordan and Rob Wilson are the same breed of team-first, gutsy competitors. Another thing that helps is a fiery practice environment. There aren't any simple walkthrough practices for the Badgers. You're expected to bring it every day, and minutes in games are earned on the practice floor. When you have a scout team that goes at the first team guys and challenges them to improve, it's hard to sulk about a previous loss, and they're forced to raise their level of play throughout the season.
I may be biased having spent five years on scout team simulating opponents and annoying the first teamers, but I think this really is a key part of the success of the team. From what I've heard, the scout team this year has been fantastic.
You've seen this team play at an elite level at several points this season – in flashes at North Carolina and throughout its first Big Ten game in a throttling of Nebraska, to name a couple. The potential to be one of the top teams in the country is certainly there. The more these guys play together, the more they'll find their identity and fit into their roles.
The next two games will be extremely tough - going to Michigan and Purdue in the same week. Michigan is outstanding at spreading the floor with shooters and with the freshmen point guard Trey Burke filling in for Darius Morris, they are picking right off where they left off with its late success last year. Purdue has three experienced Big Ten performers in Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith and Robbie Hummel. Their defense is as physical and exhausting as anyone in the country. These two games would be great opportunities for the Badgers to regain some of the fire they've shown earlier in the season. Jordan showed late in the Michigan State game that he is virtually un-guardable, and I look to him to be more aggressive earlier in the shot clock. Both of these teams are vulnerable on the offensive glass, which could be a great way for Mike to get some easy put-backs. I'll look for Josh and Mike to get their flow going offensively, to join Ryan and Jared, who have been solid most of the year, in helping shoulder the scoring load. The Badgers are too good of a shooting team to continue their poor percentage. A lot of people are down on the Badgers right now. I'd say it's a great time to fly under the radar and grab a couple huge road victories.