Following their second loss of the season, a 77-70 dogfight to Michigan in the Kohl Center, the third-ranked Badgers – a ranking that will be a distant memory Monday - is searching for an old defensive identity that is not prevalent on this year's squad.
"I know the weaknesses and other people will find out eventually," said head coach Bo Ryan of Wisconsin's suddenly mediocre defense. "Some of these guys have to fight through some of this. The amazing thing is, last year when we didn't do well offensively, still defensively we were making things pretty tough for people."
The Badgers (16-2, 3-2 Big Ten) led the Big Ten in defense a year ago, giving up only 55.9 points per game; a number that allowed them to win games played in the high 40s. Wisconsin has become an offensive juggernaut this season, eclipsing 70 points for the ninth-consecutive game, the longest stretch since 1992-93.
The problem is the Badgers have taken a step back in a once-proven area. Wisconsin has now surrendered 70 or more points to opponents in four straight games for the first time since 1995.
"Sometimes when you are trying to fix something, guys aren't quite sure and you've got to keep working through it," Ryan said.
Whether they did it on drives in the lane, fast-breaks, or in the half-court set, the Wolverines (13-4, 5-0) figured out the weakness Ryan was talking about in the first half and held on after a late flurry from the home team to win at the Kohl Center for the first time since 1999.
Having already given up 41 second-chance points on 41 offensive rebounds in their two games against Illinois and Iowa, Wisconsin had fewer problems on second-chance points in the first half (two), but that mainly was because the Wolverines didn't miss much, shooting 60.7 percent on 17 of 28 from the field.
"You've got to give credit to Michigan because credit is due," said senior Ben Brust, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. "They made a lot of shots, a lot of tough shots, and they earned it."
Dribble penetration from Michigan's guards Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas was still a problem as was defending the paint, as Michigan's post duo of Jordan Morgan and Glen Robinson III combined for 20 points and took advantage of those drives.
After making more adjustments at halftime, Wisconsin crowded the paint in the paint to instead force long shot attempts.
"We took away the glass from them and we took away the drives to the rim and made them hit jump shots," Ryan said.
Just as it did in the first half, the Badgers' defense started out slowly, giving up seven field goals on Michigan's first 11 attempts. UW finally slowed points in the paint – giving up 18 in the first compared to eight in the second.
In the second half, the Wolverines grabbed just three offensive rebounds, but their guards started making tough shots over the top of ball screens and close outs.
"We didn't get up in their grill enough on the jump shots," said Ryan, "and make them take tougher ones."
Many Wolverines baskets came off of pick-and-rolls that cut big holes in the Badgers' interior defense. Those plays also led to two open 3-pointers guard on skip passes.
"They play a ball screen defense that is common… in this league," Michigan head coach John Beilein said. "Our kids really executed what we needed to execute."
"We played it well," junior Josh Gasser (team-high 16 points) added about the Badgers' pick-and-roll defense. "The stats may not show it, especially in the first half. They made some tough shots. What are you going to do sometimes? We just had to be more physical on them, I think. I thought we were a little soft on them in a few of those screening situations early in the game and that hurt us."
Robinson – a threat from inside and out – was effective coming off screens, shooting 6-for-8 for 14 points, but he was held without a rebound. Once the Badgers adjusted, however, Michigan shot over the top of the screens and defenders.
Stauskas hit the key three and scored 23 points to help overcome last season's 2-for-16 shooting effort against UW. The shot was basically the theme of the game for Wisconsin, as Stauskas had a mismatch against Nigel Hayes.
Hayes was sagging off of Stauskas on the play because of his speed difference. That separation was enough for Stauskas to get open on the crossover dribble move.
That pushed the lead to 71-67 and UW never got closer than three.
"It's a long season," said Gasser. "Two losses isn't going to kill us, but at the same time we've got to get better."