INDIANAPOLIS – Ethan Happ was asked earlier in the week if he felt this Big Ten tournament field was wide open – with five teams ranked in the top 20 and Wisconsin having won 11 of its final 13 games.
The redshirt freshman scoffed at the question.
“I feel like we’re going to win it,” he said, “so it’s not wide open to all the other teams.”
The tournament may still be wide open, but the long-shot Badgers have officially lost their chance to defend their title.
Flat on both ends of the court, resulting in shots not falling and sluggish defensive rotations opening up driving lanes, sixth-seeded Wisconsin meekly bowed out of the Big Ten tournament to a hungrier, more determined 11th-seeded Nebraska in a 70-58 defeat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was ugly in every sense of the word – a game that was a grind in the low post that lacked flow and rhythm for UW’s two main forwards. Doubled and roughed up every time they touched the ball, Big Ten Freshman of the Year Happ (17 points, 5-for-11) and first-team All-Big Ten selection Nigel Hayes (10, 2-for-15) developed nothing.
“I don’t think we heeded (Coach Gard’s) advice,” said junior Vitto Brown (16 points). “He told us that they want to come out with passion and fire, and I think we downplayed their abilities in the beginning. We were kind of taken by surprise at how hard they were going on both ends of the floor.”
Shots didn’t fall, rhythm was lacking and the defense missed rotations that open up driving lanes to the rim. In short, Wisconsin (20-12) was more like the team that looked lost during the nonconference schedule than the one that made life miserable for conference teams in late January and February.
“We didn’t play with that hunger that we had been,” said Wisconsin assistant coach Howard Moore. “At times when we were getting on a streak and winning games, it was because of our drive and determination to play together and try to outwork people. Tonight we got outworked.”
Nebraska shot 46.9 percent and put four players in double figures, but the one that hurt Wisconsin the most didn’t even play in the 72-61 Badgers victory in Madison Feb.10. Missing that game because of a concussion, Shavon Shields made up for it by dropping a game-high 20 points to advance the Cornhuskers (16-17) to a quarterfinal matchup against third-seeded Maryland.
“They really played around him and played off his energy,” said junior Zak Showalter of Shields. “For him to get that swagger, we wanted to take him out of that. Unfortunately we didn’t do that.”
It’s the first time since the tournament’s inception in 1998 that Wisconsin failed to advance to the quarterfinals, a loss they blame on failing to follow its defensive principles, fundamentals and a lack of discipline.
Nebraska beat up Wisconsin with 30 points in the paint, eight fast break points and had its bench outscore Wisconsin’s 18-2. The Huskers also shot 51.2 percent in the second half, marking the third time in the last four halves that the Badgers have allowed an opponent to shoot over 50 percent from the field.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” said Showalter. “It’s not one thing. We’ve got to fix those.”
In addition to the low-post woes, UW went 4-for-20 from 3-point range, including 1-for-6 from Bronson Koenig, 0-for-3 from Showalter and 1-for-6 from Hayes and was also outrebounded 38-33.
Playing in the Big Ten tournament’s second round for the first time since 2000, Wisconsin was lackluster from the beginning. In the first 20 minutes it shot only 29.2 percent, committed seven turnovers in 31 possessions and went 4-for-9 from the free throw line. Brown scored 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting. The rest of the roster went 2-for-19.
“The first half we were just not finishing around the basket,” said Koenig, who finished with 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting. “We had some turnovers that started the whole thing.”
Wisconsin certainly had its chances, four times cutting a Nebraska 7-point lead down to single digits in the second half before seeing its offense collapse or its defense leak, resulting in them being right back where they started.
After cutting the lead to 55-52, Wisconsin had four straight empty possessions (two turnovers, two missed 3-pointers) that allowed Nebraska to go on a 6-0 run for its largest lead with 3:47 remaining.
Koenig’s 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining closed the deficit to 63-57, but Nebraska closed the game on a 7-1 run with the Badgers getting the one free throw make on the final six possessions.
“Every time we clawed back, we gave them free points,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who was coaching his first game since being named permanent head coach on Monday. “It was either a foul that was unnecessary, one 60 feet from the basket. Another time where we claw within two or three and suddenly give us five points in transition … I saw a lot of uncharacteristic things out there that haven’t been present when we have been playing really well.”
Now the Badgers wait until Selection Sunday, a wait that won’t be nerve-racking because of the work Wisconsin did in going 6-2 against the RPI top 75 since Jan.17. The only thing UW needs to worry about is its seeding and regaining its nothing-to-lose fire. Otherwise its tournament run will be 40 minutes long.
“We just weren’t ready to play, period,” said Koenig. “They out toughed us, they outplayed us, they played harder we did. We’ve been saying that for a while now that we can’t let anyone do that or we can get beat by anyone.”