Big Ten Showing UW No Mercy

After a 16-0 start, Wisconsin finds itself navigating troubled waters as its defense struggles, having lost two straight and heading to two tough road venues this week.

MADISON - Conference play shows no mercy, especially in a conference like the Big Ten. Take Wisconsin's last week as a prime example of how unforgiving the league can be.

In Wisconsin's loss on Tuesday, the Badgers gave up a staggering 52 points in the paint to Indiana in a three-point loss. The number became even more disappointing when the Hoosiers managed only 47 points in a home loss Saturday to Northwestern; the same 9-10 Wildcats team that UW beat on the road by 25 in the conference opener.

A once 15-0 Ohio State has lost three straight while a 0-2 Purdue team has won three straight to be tied for fourth in the Big Ten with Wisconsin. It's a league where no game can be taken for granted.

"It's the toughest conference for a reason," said junior Josh Gasser. "You have to play really well to win games in this league."

The Big Ten has a habit of punishing teams with weaknesses, and the Badgers' defensive woes have been exposed.

After giving up 18 points in the paint in the first half against Michigan, Wisconsin became committed to taking away the offensive glass and the driving lanes, making the Wolverines take tough jump shots. Problem was the Badgers didn't contest enough and didn't close out fast enough.

"Maybe in their minds they're thinking, ‘We need to protect the driving lines. We let that get away from us last game,'" said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. "Sometimes when you are trying to fix something, guys aren't quite sure. You just have to keep working through it."

Michigan ran high ball screens in the second half, which created open looks for the Wolverines with the Badgers big men sagging off the jumpers. As a result the conference's best field goal shooting team made29 of 53 shots from the field (54.7 percent).

"They were giving us that open 15-foot jump shot," said Michigan Glenn Robinson III, one of the returning contributors from last year's NCAA runner-up team. "They were kind of collapsing back. We've been working on that in practice throughout the week, and I thought we all did a great job of knocking down that shot."

Added Gasser: "We didn't play well, obviously. They have some talented scorers, so you have to pick your poison. Definitely not happy about it."

It's the kind of defense that Wisconsin fans aren't used to, even in down years.

A NCAA tournament first-round knockout last year mainly because of streaky shooting, Wisconsin still finished in the top four in the conference based on the senior experience it had on its front line. Making life challenging for Big Ten foes, UW was able to win games in the 40s based on its aggressive defense that allowed its offense to scratch out enough points.

Those who bemoaned that style are getting the exact opposite this season, a Wisconsin offense that can score from any of the five positions on the court, but at the moment can't seem to find the niche defensively, allowing over 70 points in four straight games for the first time in 19 years.

"I know the weaknesses," said Ryan. "And other people will find out eventually. The thing is you plug one hole. Sometimes you feel like you're in a football game. Your defense gave up X number of points and then you fix that, and then the offense. Some of these guys have to fight though some of this."

UW could get away with its defensive lapses in the nonconference schedule against teams unfamiliar with its style, but the Badgers haven't fooled the veteran teams in the Big Ten who have the Badgers' weaknesses marked with a red highlighter.

Wisconsin showed it can deliver tough defense, running Michigan players off the line, shutting down the lane and perimeter and making the Wolverines work during UW's 14-2 run to cut a 13-point lead down to one. The problem, according to Ryan, is having players sustain that intensity and contest more attempts.

"Sometimes we're getting it," said Ryan. "Sometimes it's getting away from us."

So is getting to the free throw line. Wisconsin has attempted only 18 free throws the last two games, leading Ryan to say the Badgers are having a tough time forcing opponents to commit when Wisconsin attacked the lane offensively. Those problems led to seven blocks for Michigan and a number of players shooting a poor percentage by not pump faking or kicking the pass out to an open shooter.

"We need to keep attacking," said Gasser. "We've got guys who are capable of doing that and making good decisions. There were obviously times when we didn't make the right decision, but that doesn't mean we stop attacking the basket."

The Big Ten gauntlet doesn't get any easier. After being off Sunday, Wisconsin gets one day of practice before traveling Tuesday to Minneapolis for a road game Wednesday. Following a late flight home, UW goes through the same time schedule in preparation for Saturday's road game at Purdue.

"It's a very humbling game for sure," said senior Ben Brust. "We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves because we're on the road. Everyone knows it's not easy to win road games in the Big Ten. It's a good opportunity for us, I can tell you that much."

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