EVANSTON, Ill. – For a team that made college basketball’s Final Four in back-to-back seasons, sitting in a four-way tie for ninth place in the Big Ten standings is unfamiliar waters. But if members of the University of Wisconsin are expecting an outpouring of condolences to start flooding in from the Big Ten brethren, they’ll be waiting awhile.
“There is no pity party here,” said head coach Greg Gard. “Nobody feels sorry for us … This league, having been in it, having watched it my whole life, there’s not a time where you can take a breath, sit back and relax and move on to the next one. Whether you come out on the right-hand side or the left-hand side, it’s on to next and what can we learn from it.”
Teams smell blood in the water after being dominated by the Badgers for the last 15 years, including Northwestern (14-3, 2-2 Big Ten), which hosts the Badgers tonight at Welsh-Ryan Arena with the notion that they should have a great chance to break a five-game home losing streak to their neighbors to the north … not to mention add a win to a resume it hopes will get them in its first N.C.A.A. tournament in school history.
After losing seasons in head coach Chris Collins’ first two seasons, including losing 10 consecutive conference games last season (including five in a row that were decided either by five or fewer points or in overtime), the Wildcats have a deep rotation that have allowed them to absorb injuries to key contributors Vic Law (shoulder surgery in the preseason, done for the season) and Alex Olah (stress fracture).
And while the Badgers have made strides on both ends of the court in Gard’s brief five game tenure, the fact of the matter is Wisconsin will see its 14 year streak of top four finishes in the Big Ten and its 17 year streak of appearances in the N.C.A.A. tournament end this season if it can’t start putting a bunch of wins on its resume.
“This group has the right mentality that is developing,” said Gard. “It’s not there yet. We’re in the developmental process with having that capability of being able to handle those situations.”
Coming off consecutive one possession losses, the big emphasis for Wisconsin now is handling the little details that could make a difference in crunch time, things veteran teams have mastered and youthful teams need to learn.
According to Gard, Wisconsin studied 73 situations during film study Sunday from Saturday’s 63-60 loss to No.3 Maryland. Roughly 23 were of the positive variety, leaving a handful of things Wisconsin needs from its young players to build a consistency and an identity.
Examples ranged from finishing better on the low block (UW lost an estimates 28 points around the rim Saturday), using shot fakes to generate more free throw opportunity and be aware in critical game situations.
After sophomore guard Melo Trimble hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left, Gard unsuccessfully tried to call timeout. According to the new rules, the head coach can call a timeout up until the ball is touched by the inbounding player. In this case, Gard couldn’t call a timeout because freshman Alex Illikainen picked the ball up after only two bounces and rushed the pass into forward Nigel Hayes, eliminated Gard’s ability to reset. Hayes’ three-quarters court shot fell well short.
“With 1.2, we have to advance the ball a lot farther than where we threw it to,” said Gard. “If we can’t do that, we need to take a timeout. Obviously with Alex grabbing it right away, and I was trying to call timeout, obviously that didn’t happen, and when we did throw it in, we needed to advance it much farther to do the Ben Brust shot.”
While the reinforcement points are still high, they are diminishing. Gard said he had been pulling over 90 clips from games for film study, and the Badgers have come off consecutive defensive performances of only offensive-minded teams to season-low point totals.
And if that’s not enough reinforcement, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said competing against Wisconsin Saturday was the most physical game the third-ranked Terrapins had played all season, resulting in an uneven performance by their standards.
That’s the M.O. the Wisconsin program has been built on with Gard on the staff, and what the Badgers need to get back to consistently if they want to save their season.
“Watching this league over the years, you have to be a very good defensive team if you want to be in the upper echelon of this league,” said Gard. “The scouting is too good, the coaching is too good. It is not going to be a point very often where you are going to be in position to outscore people. The history of this league, the teams that have sustained it at the top, defensively is always a key.
“We are getting much better defensively. Of those 73 things that were good, bad or indifferent, a lot of those are on the defensive end. There are obviously things on the offensive end we need to improve upon, but defensively you have to be consistent. That’s something I think you can always hopefully have control over.”