"I've always focused more on the stuff we need to improve on than the stuff we are doing well," senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. "Because if you don't improve on it it is going to come back to get you later on."
UW may be hard-wired against relishing its performances, but the Badgers have many positives to look back upon from last weekend's first and second round NCAA Tournament games in Oklahoma City.
First, the obvious. The sixth-seeded Badgers beat 11th seed Northern Iowa 57-52 and No. 14 seed Bucknell 71-62 to advance to Friday's Syracuse Regional semifinal against No. 10 seed North Carolina State at 6:27 p.m. in the Carrier Dome here.
In order to get this far, UW played two of its more complete games this season, with a generally efficient offensive performance matched with exceptional defensive play.
"You never play perfectly but I think if you analyze the 40 minutes of each game, for the majority of the minutes we've played pretty good basketball," assistant coach Gary Close said. "There are a few things you see here and there, but that is the nature of the game, there is always going to be a few."
"There is still lots of things we can improve on," Wilkinson said. "Lots of little letdowns here and there that cost us baskets on the defensive end, cost us not getting an opportunity on the offensive end, that we need to improve on, especially if we want to win this next game."
In each game last weekend, Wisconsin jumped out to a double-digit lead early in the game, only to see their opponent make a comeback; Bucknell actually took two one-point leads in the second half Sunday.
The Badgers, though, repelled each challenge. After UNI closed within 53-50 with precious few seconds left, Kammron Taylor made four clutch free throws to ice the game. Sunday, Bucknell took a 47-46 second-half lead, only to see UW go on a 25-15 run to close out the game.
The Badgers (24-8 overall) are 6-0 in games decided by five points or less, but they held second-half leads in three of their five conference losses, and needed a buzzer beat to beat Indiana after letting a big lead slip away.
"We finally know how to close out games," sophomore forward Alando Tucker said. "That's one thing that makes me more so happy than anything. Because we are starting to understand that when the games are tough, we don't break."
The biggest reasons Wisconsin did not falter down the stretch last weekend were its defense and ball security, which will be imperative to the team's success Friday.
The Badgers only turned it over 7.5 times per game last week and they have had single-digit turnovers in each of their past five games — three Big Ten Tournament contests and two in the NCAA Tournament.
A great deal of credit goes to point guard Sharif Chambliss, who quickly adapted to the position after being forced into it by the departures of Devin Harris and Boo Wade. Chambliss had four assists and one turnover last week and boasts the third-best single-season assist-to-turnover-ratio (2.50) in UW history.
"That's not something that happens overnight," Close said. "It's a gradual improvement and he deserves a lot of credit. He's making better decisions, he's a little stronger with the ball, he's getting more confidence."
All things considered, UW shot the ball well last week, making 42 percent of its 3-pointers (18 of 43) and 44 percent of its field goals (41 of 94). The Badgers, though, needed to survive a 7 ½ minute scoring drought against UNI and a 5 ½ minute dry spell against Bucknell. That's where defense came in: UW has allowed just 55.1 points per game in its last eight outings; just 57 per contest last weekend. UNI and Bucknell, both of whom came in boasting a collection of good 3-point shooters, shot just 28 percent from beyond the arc.
Still, what sticks in Wilkinson's mind are the two first-half layups he allowed to Bucknell center Chris McNaughton off pick-and-rolls. UW corrected that mistake, though, and silenced the play in the second half.
"We can't give up easy baskets like that," Wilkinson said.