MADISON – With eight games remaining in the conference season, Wisconsin sits with a 1.5 game lead in the standings and are in the driver’s seat to win its second conference title in the last three seasons. It would be an impressive accomplishment, especially considering the Badgers have built their lead without having come close to playing their best offensive basketball.
No.7 Wisconsin (20-3, 9-1 Big Ten) heads to Lincoln for its only regular season meeting with Nebraska (10-13, 4-7) possessing a suffocating defense. UW ranks fourth in the N.C.A.A. in scoring defense (59.8 ppg), fifth in fewest fouls per game and 29th in fewest turnovers per game, all things that contribute to having held 13 opponents to 60 points or fewer.
It’s the offensive numbers that aren’t adding up for the Badgers since nonconference play ended. Through 10 Big Ten games Nigel Hayes is 40.2 percent from the field and 4-for-20 from 3-point range, Vitto Brown is shooting 34.7 percent and five of the six bench players are shooting under 41 percent.
It’s a reason why Wisconsin has won by a combined 26 points in its last three games, including one in overtime, despite holding teams under that 60-point threshold.
“I don’t think it’s anything we can do other than keep shooting,” forward Ethan Happ said, leading the team at 55.1 percent in conference play. “We’ve got shooters and sometimes, some games, they slump a little bit. We’ll work the ball through the post and when I’m doubled, we’ll keep kicking it out to guys who are ready to shoot. We’ll eventually start making them.”
In the last three games against Rutgers, Illinois and Indiana, Wisconsin has finished under 41 percent from the floor and less than 31 percent from 3-point range, which includes going 3-for-25 from the perimeter in the overtime win against the Scarlet Knights at Madison Square Garden.
“I know we can obviously get better,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “We’ve got to put ourselves in positions where we can shoot the ball within rhythm. As much as we touch the post and the assist numbers that Nigel and Ethan have, we’re going to get opportunities to shoot it.”
The Badgers figure to get their fair share of open looks against the Huskers. Although first with 7.9 steals per conference game, Nebraska ranks 10th in field goal defense (45.1 percent), 12th in scoring defense (76.5 ppg) and 14th (last) in 3-point percentage defense (45.5 percent).
Bad defensive numbers haven’t always led to offensive success, however. Indiana is 13th in scoring defense (77.2) and Illinois is 13th in field goal percentage defense (46.1 percent), but the Badgers only scored 65 points against the Hoosiers and shot 40.7 percent against the Illini.
“As long as we are touching the post and playing through the post, not necessarily meaning we have to shoot it from there, but understanding what’s made us good and where our strengths are, continue to play through those,” head coach Greg Gard said of the shooting. “I understand there’s going to be nights where the ball doesn’t go in. But I evaluate more on the type of shot we get.”
Gard said the Wisconsin staff takes a look at how closely guarded a player was when attempting a shot, if one more pass could have led to a shot being more open and if the possession touched the post or played through the paint before a shot was attempted.
After building a 22-10 lead with 8:34 remaining in the first half Sunday against Indiana, a byproduct of going 7-for-13 from the field, the Badgers finished the game 12-for-35. Other than the misses, there aren’t many differences between the first 12 minutes and the final 28.
Of the 23 missed field goals, Wisconsin had seven open shots that didn’t fall and nine shots that were contested in the post or were missed after touching the post, opportunities the Badgers can live with.
Of the group, however, two were a contested misses that occurred without touching the post and five were open misses that occurred without touching the post, coming once with six seconds on the shot clock, two with 14, one with 19 and one with 27.
The Badgers also committed three turnovers without touching the post and three turnovers on entry passes into the post, but were able to draw six fouls as a result of getting the ball inside.
Bottom line was Moore saw more good than bad when he broke down the film, an encouraging sign for a team still looking to peak.
“We’ll just keep plugging away at it,” Moore said. “We need to understand how we get our shots from the perimeter. Not necessarily being a ball-screen offense that seeks threes, but touching the post, inside-out, 10 toes to the basket, stepping into threes is how we like to play. We’ll get those opportunities moving forward.”