OMAHA, Neb. – The words “uncharacteristic” and “un-Wisconsinlike” were used by three different sources Tuesday night, one being the head coach, one being the senior point guard and the other being the preseason Big Ten player of the year.
Having one person admit it isn’t good. Having all three, well, it doesn’t take a genius to see how this ended up.
A program built on ball security, defense and touching the post did the opposite in all three areas, as No.9 Wisconsin couldn’t get out of its own way in a 79-67 defeat to No.22 Creighton that could best be described as sobering for such a veteran-laden team.
“We consider ourselves definitely a senior-laden, upperclassmen-heavy type of team, and we made mistakes you would not expect from upperclassmen, let alone players at the University of Wisconsin,” senior Nigel Hayes said. “The way we pride ourselves on taking care of the ball, three of our starters had four turnovers. That’s never a good recipe to win a game in a tough environment.”
Following a blowout victory in the season opener, head coach Greg Gard was hoping an early road test against one of the top teams in the Big East would gauge the program’s early season progress before a tough three-game road trip at the Maui Invitational next week – an island jaunt that could have the Badgers play a pair of teams currently ranked in the top-5.
What he learned was Wisconsin (1-1) is becoming too reliant on the 3-point shot, not aggressive enough in the low post, committed too many turnovers and had too many lapses defensively.
Bronson Koenig scored a game-high 21 points and Hayes added 16, but UW finished with 16 turnovers and shot 41.3 percent from the field. Of Wisconsin’s 63 shots, 39 came from 3-point range (61.9 percent), including 25 in the first half.
“Twenty-five is too many given the type of team (we are), how we’re built,” Gard said.
The 39 3-point attempts were second-most in school history behind the 40 UW attempted in a 70-67 double-overtime loss to Temple in 2001. In both instances, UW hit only 11 of them.
Wisconsin has had good memories in this building, winning a pair of N.C.A.A. tournament games inside the facility in both 2008 and 2015 to secure Sweet 16 berths. It certainly didn’t feel like home-sweet-home, not against a Creighton program returning four starters from last year’s team that’s determined to make the N.C.A.A. tournament after a two-year absence.
The Bluejays (2-0) put four players in double figures and shot 50 percent from the floor.
“You could argue that it might be the best win we’ve had since I’ve been here,” fourth-year head coach Greg McDermott said, as Creighton registered its first top-10 nonconference home win since 1973. “When you consider where we’re trying to get the program back to, where Wisconsin’s program is today and in the manner that we did it. Nobody forces Wisconsin into 16 turnovers. Nobody keeps Wisconsin off the free throw line.”
The writing was on the wall in the game’s first two minutes. The Badgers committed three turnovers on its three possessions – a back-court violation, a forced entry pass and a travel – and saw the Bluejays make their first three shots. Only 84 seconds of the game had elapsed and Gard was ready to burn his first timeout.
“I’m somewhat surprised that we didn’t play with poise at key times,” Gard said. “We just did some things that were self-inflicted at times.”
Things got hot after that, especially from the perimeter. UW was at one point 8 for 14 from 3-point range and built a lead as big as eight with 7:26 remaining in the first half.
That’s when things went south. The Badgers missed 22 of their final 25 3-point attempts, including the final 11 of the first half.
Even with the disjointed offense, things didn’t go haywire for Wisconsin until Creighton started getting into a flow with its transition offense in the final 7+ minutes.
After Berlin, Wis., native Toby Hegner hit a 3-pointer to make it 57-52, Khyri Thomas (team-high 18 points) delivered a pair of 3-point plays in transition, one the old-fashioned way another hit that was a back breaker, giving the Bluejays an 11-point lead. It was the largest of the game and it came with 6:37 remaining.
UW never got closer than five the rest of the way, as the Bluejays finished with a 13-0 edge on fast-break points, all coming in the second half.
“We just didn’t have our best shooting night,” Koenig said. “The turnovers in the second half really kind of got us when they converted off those, as well.”
Despite having two preseason All-Big Ten forward, Wisconsin managed only 20 points in the paint and finished with only five free throw attempts. Nine of Hayes’ 13 field goal attempts were from the perimeter (three makes). Ethan Happ finished with seven points and four turnovers in a foul-plagued 25 minutes.
Even when Wisconsin uses his length and won the rebounding battle, 42-27, the Badgers only had 11 second-chance points.
“It wasn’t the type of inside presence we like to have,” Hayes said. “Definitely like to get more touches there.”
McDermott admitted the Bluejays typically don’t double the low post much, although the team worked on it exclusively the last three days, and that he had some zones ready to call in case it backfired. It didn’t.
“We felt like they’re not shooting free throws, they’re not getting to the basket, it’s playing into our hands,” McDermott said. “Let’s roll with it a little longer and see what happens.”
Creighton has proven to be no easy place to win, especially for Big Ten teams. The Bluejays are a perfect 53-0 all-time in regular-season home games that take place on or before Nov. 26th and haven’t lost to a Big Ten team at home since 1968.
It’s a sour taste that exposed mistakes but miscues that Hayes called “correctable.”
“I thought coming in here to start the year would be good,” Gard said. “We’re going to learn a lot from this. We definitely will.”