"(We're) not a team that really shot the ball well all year. It happened again."
And again, and again and again.
For a program that appeared to show its fan base that its shooting woes were firmly in their past the previous weekend, Wisconsin busted brackets throughout Badger Nation with a disastrous 25.4 percent shooting performance in a meek 57-46 loss Friday to No.12 Ole Miss in Kansas City, Mo. The shooting percentage was the fourth lowest by top five seed in tournament history and second worst by the program since 1996.
Wisconsin was held under 50 points for the sixth and final time on Friday morning – the first time a UW team has done that since the 1999-2000 team. That team will be remembered for making an improbable run to the Final Four. This year's team will be remembered for another postseason run ending way too soon.
In recent years, Wisconsin has the reputation as a competitive regular-season team that can't find another gear in March. Since they reached the Final Four in 2000, the Badgers have made one Elite Eight (in 2005) and four other Sweet 16 appearances.
UW had been eliminated by a succession of teams — UNLV, Davidson, Xavier, Cornell and Butler — that were very good mid-majors, but mid-majors nonetheless that UW was seeded higher than (except Xavier in 2009).
Last year they lost by one to top-seed Syracuse on a botched final possession. Two years ago they lost to eighth-seed Butler when it missed 16 consecutive shots at one point and wound up shooting 17-for-56 (30.4 percent) overall and 7-for-29 (24.1 percent) from the 3-point line. That game would have fit in well with this year's team.
Wisconsin's Jekyll-and-Hyde ways were on full display in Chicago: shoot 17 percent in the first half of the quarterfinals and shoot 60 percent in the second half. Shot over 50 percent in the semifinals and hover around 30 percent in the championship game. Upset Indiana and Michigan twice during the season but lose to Virginia and Purdue. That's what happens when the Badgers didn't have a "bulldog" player on their team.
In past seasons, Wisconsin had an angry, ornery leader on the court that kept guys in line and focused on the objective. That player was also a go-to scorer. But unlike Alando Tucker, Trevon Hughes, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor who filled that role previously, UW never had that on-the-floor leader/dominant scorer it desperately needed when things started to spiral out of control.
Take their latest tournament head scratcher as an example. Point guard Traevon Jackson told the Journal Sentinel that he could tell something was amiss in the opening minutes of the game, yet didn't have the ability to alter it. UW starting seniors Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans are all good players, but never were labeled as the go-to, or even consistent, scorer.
The Badgers recorded just one field goal in the last 6 minutes, 52 seconds of their loss to Ole Miss, another one of the many prolonged droughts that always seemed to hamper this team.
So who will be Wisconsin's "bulldog" and "go-to scorer" next season to avoid this kind of early exit? The early candidates are junior Josh Gasser (chomping at the bit after missing the entire season) and sophomore Sam Dekker. Dekker is a phenomenal player and considering UW loses the three aforementioned senior forwards and former five-star recruit Evan Anderson hasn't panned out, Dekker will have even more pressure on his shoulders to score, play defense and lead.
Having a five-man lineup of Gasser, senior Ben Brust, Jackson (a junior), Dekker and junior Frank Kaminksy has possibilities, but thins out the bench. Throw in true freshman Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig – two players who could one day fit that angry on-court leader – and UW has the makings of another competitive team.
But as we found out this season, it takes more than fielding a competitive team to win. This year's Wisconsin team might have been one of Ryan's toughest groups. UW battled through a myriad of injuries – nagging and serious – that crippled them in the nonconference season, but made them strong in conference play.
After falling to 6-4 on the season, nobody realistically felt UW would continue its consecutive run of a top four finish in the Big Ten, let along make the NCAA tournament for a 15th straight season. Yet there they were at the end: fourth place in the Big Ten, second place in the conference tournament and back in the field of 68.
But the reason Wisconsin has now gone six seasons without a conference championship or a Sweet 16 win is because of its inability to shoot consistently.
Ryan said once after a tournament loss that the only way to battle through scoring droughts is to keep attacking. Too often in recent years Wisconsin has relied on the 3-point shot to its detriment, shying away from its inside-outside game that worked wonders when Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma and Mike Wilkinson were floating around.
Sometimes the perimeter shooting pays off - UW shot 51.7 percent (14-for-27) against the Orange until Taylor's miss as time expired – but the reliance on the 3-point shot cost UW against Butler two tournaments ago, and yesterday when UW couldn't shoot and couldn't adjust to a team that was outworking and out-hustling them in the second half. Those don't include the number of times they cost UW the last four months.
So with that the 2012-13 chapter closed for Wisconsin against the Rebels with another performance filled with too many misses, too little offensive firepower, the worst 3-point shooting team in Ryan's tenure and an one-dimensional attack that negated its gritty effort in holding an opponent to a season low in points.
So what has to change? For starters UW has to get tougher in the paint, as solid interior post teams like Ole Miss, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State held UW to some of its lowest shooting numbers on the year. UW also needs that to develop that go-to guy to be a leader and a scorer (whether he's already on the roster or needs to be recruited remains to be seen).
Every year Ryan – now in his 14th season as a division 1 coach - doesn't make a Final Four or a deep run into the tournament the critics come out - lambasting his style, his staff, his players and his recruiting. However, those critics overlook the fact that it took Duke's Mike Krzyzewski 13 seasons to reach his first Final Four. Before he did, he had made just four tournament appearances and reached one Sweet 16 with players more talented than the ones at UW.
Rick Barnes made his first Final Four in his 16th season, and his location in Texas pretty much guarantees him the pick of the litter when it comes to recruiting talent. Jamie Dixon has yet to take Pittsburgh to a Final Four and Matt Painter has never taken Purdue past the Sweet 16.
Fans don't realize winning six games against the top echelon of teams is hard to do. It involves a complex combination of factors: team health, drawing the right seed, shots going in and favorable matchups. Yes, Wisconsin is overdue for some luck to go its way, but great teams make their own luck. Wisconsin was good – not great – this past season.
The journey to become great next year has already started for Wisconsin, at least one week earlier than expected. What happens over that time will either change the perception of the program or add another frustrating chapter on to the back of it.