UW didn't slip on Wednesday night, it flat out fell on its faces.
On a night where last-place Penn State went on the road to upset No.24 Ohio State in overtime, No.14 Wisconsin followed suit by shooting a mind-boggling 26.3 percent in a 65-56 stunning loss to Northwestern at the Kohl Center Wednesday.
It's the fourth loss in five games, all against unranked teams, for Wisconsin (17-4, 4-4 Big Ten), which have stayed in freefall mode after starting off 16-0 and rose to No.3 in the national polls, things that seem like distant memories.
The problem during that losing streak was a lack of defense with teams killing the Badgers in the paint. It was the exact opposite in just Wisconsin's third two-game home losing streak in the Bo Ryan era.
Wisconsin's starters shot a combined 14-for-52 with Ben Brust (7-for-18), Traevon Jackson (2-for-12), and Sam Dekker (2-for-9) missing the most. It was so frustrating for some that Dekker was seen shooting jump shots on the floor 30 minutes after the final buzzer.
"Once you start missing, the basket gets pretty small," said Ryan. "And it obviously got pretty small."
Brust scored a team-high 21 points but missed 11 shots, including seven 3-pointers and was bemoaning himself for air balling a wide-open 3-point attempt from the top of the key. Brust wasn't alone, as UW failed to have a player shoot at least 50 percent for the first time all season.
"We got a lot of wide-open looks," said Brust. "I don't even know what to say. To throw the ball in the post and get a wide-open kickout and to air ball it is just ridiculous. That's just unacceptable. Just got to make shots. Just got to be a man, step up and knock them down."
UW had won the last seven meetings in the series by an average of 19.9 points per game, including a 76-49 decision on Jan.2, but Northwestern (11-11, 4-5) was the more aggressive, tougher team, something that the Wildcats had made an emphasis on since that game 27 days ago.
As a result, the Wildcats – which ranked last in the conference in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage - won for the first time at the Kohl Center and the first time in Madison in almost 18 years, when Dick Bennett was in his first season as head coach.
"Our identity is defense, no question," said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. "That's who we've become. We talk about it every day. To me in basketball, defense is the time when you're most united as a team. That's when you found out if your team is a together team because in order to play good defense, you need all five guys connected as one."
Using Collins' model, it's evident that Wisconsin failed in that regard, too, allowing the Wildcats to score the most points since January 9 and the most in a since December 16.
Thanks to missed free throws, sloppy turnovers and poor shot selection, Wisconsin made more free throws (21) than field goals (15) and never amounted much of a comeback after Northwestern went on a 25-7 run in the second half, erasing a six-point lead to build a 54-39 edge with 3:41 remaining.
"It just seemed like if they bounced it off the floor it was going to go in," said Ryan.
The Wildcats were led by 30 points from Drew Crawford, who shot 10-for-15 from the floor and were one of the key components to salt the game away for the Wildcats. In the final 2:25, Northwestern made 11 of its final 14 free throws, including 6-for-8 from Crawford.
"Every morning I wake up and I say, ‘Maybe this is the day we're going to shoot well,'" Collins said. "I've been waiting for a long time. I'm glad it was tonight."
Wisconsin settle primary for long jumpers and 3-pointers in the first half, resulting in 41.6 percent (10 of 24) of UW's shots coming beyond the perimeter. The results were ugly when the shots weren't falling, as the Badgers shot just 25 percent in the first half, had one offensive rebound and only four points in the paint.
It was a far cry from the 40-14 lead UW enjoyed at Evanston early January in the conference opener.
In reality, few things worked as smooth this time. Wisconsin scored 44 points in the paint in Evanston, a big amount of those coming from Nigel Hayes' career-high 19 points. This game UW could only scratch out 14 points in the paint – settling for 24 3-point attempts and Hayes didn't score UW's first bench point until there was 15:01 remaining in the second half.
"Defense is where we hang our hat," said Crawford. "It's what we work on every day in practice. That's something that the coaching has emphasized from day one and we've really bought into it. We're a blue-collared team."
After failing to move into a tie for third place in the Big Ten, Wisconsin now heads into a rugged month of February playing four ranked teams and two others who have already defeated UW this season.
"Next game, Ohio State," said junior Josh Gasser. "Take it one game at a time still. Keep trying to knock them out. You have to go into every game expecting to win, preparing to win and playing to win."