The same question that haunted the Badgers after three straight one-and-dones in the Big Ten tournament is lingering this year after a 65-52 semifinal loss to No. 8 Michigan State: Can they rebound for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament?
Searching on Saturday for its first conference tournament title game appearance since 2008, No. 14 Wisconsin relapsed to the woes that plagued it all season: prolonged scoring droughts and breakdowns in defensive fundamentals.
Michigan State became the second team to beat a Bo Ryan-coached team three times in one season – Illinois did it on its run to the NCAA championship game in 2004-05. That Wisconsin team had a senior point guard in Sharif Chambliss – now the Badgers' video coordinator – but wound up in the Elite Eight.
Chambliss said it'll be up to senior point guard Jordan Taylor, a preseason All-American who has struggled at times, to rally his teammates.
"Jordan is going to put pressure on himself because he's a perfectionist," Chambliss said. "He wants to be his best at all times, but the key is his teammates taking the pressure off of him. The big thing (in 2005) is we needed to stick together, and that's the same message now. It's about boxing out, taking care of the ball and sticking to what we do."
Wisconsin (24-9) didn't do those things Saturday against Michigan State. The Badgers were outscored, 22-6, in the paint and saw Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green record his league-leading 19th double-double with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
The Badgers weren't stingy with the ball, as eight first-half turnovers led to seven points and a 35-25 Michigan State halftime lead.
"When we get away from how we practice and how we typically play, we get ourselves in trouble," Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard said. "It's happened all year with our nine losses. At some stretches during the game, we've gotten away from our identity, and you can't against the good teams."
One identity the Badgers are hoping to change is that of a team having trouble shooting the basketball. Wisconsin twice went without a field goal for at least 7 minutes, 50 seconds.
After Wisconsin took the 20-9 lead midway through the first half, the Spartans went on a 26-5 run while the Badgers stalled. Michigan State hit 10 straight field goals and – despite starting 2-for-11 – shot 57.7 percent in the first half.
"We just have to keep attacking," Taylor said. "Sometimes we get stagnate … and it's definitely my fault as a point guard. We need to move better without the ball."
Wisconsin unleashed a 13-0 run in the second half and was still down, 46-40, with 12:18 left. Of course, the offense vanished again, and that was that.
"We had a lull in the first half and a nine-possession lull in the second half," Gard said. "Obviously, what they did defensively, they cranked it up a little more. But we also didn't execute things the way we needed to."
With Wisconsin playing an opening-round game Thursday, the team has four days to practice, prepare and regroup. Both starting guards Josh Gasser and Taylor called the upcoming days of practice the most important of the season.
Why? Because if Wisconsin can play like it did in beating Indiana on Friday, the Badgers, according to Taylor, can make it all the way to the Final Four New Orleans.
"(We can win) a national championship, I think," Taylor said. "Anytime we can play like that and score the ball … we can keep things going."
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