Crisler Arena may very well be the toughest such atmosphere this season in which the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team has needed to mount a rally. The Wolverine student section, riding the high of a watershed victory over in-state rival Michigan State on Wednesday night, let the Badgers have an earful after Wisconsin made the mistake of giving it a reason to yell early on.
The Wolverines (15-3, 5-2) scored on five of their first six possessions to take a 12-7 lead 3:13 into the first half on a Dion Harris 3-pointer. Another Harris triple propelled Michigan to a 20-11 advantage 12:25 before halftime.
With a student section that runs the length of the floor as opposed to along the baseline, the crowd was right behind the Wisconsin bench and right on top of it for most of 40 minutes.
"I can't say enough about our crowd today," Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. "I really thought that gave us the extra energy and boost that we needed at various moments to push us forward and possibly get us over the edge in this game."
Saturday most closely resembled the loss at Pittsburgh on New Year's Eve in which the Badgers trailed by a steady margin for much of the game and could not mount a comeback despite a stellar effort by star forward Alando Tucker.
Tucker finished the Pittsburgh game with 25 points. Against the Wolverines Saturday he was good for 21 in addition to the career-high 29 points Kammron Taylor strung together, including a barrage of late game connections during UW's failed comeback attempt.
"We just can't dig ourselves in a hole like we did," Taylor said. "We come out there in the second half and I think we played a lot better in the second half than we did in the first, but the key on the road is at least try to keep the lead close going into halftime. They had a pretty big lead. On the road we're just going to have to come together more as a team and not dig ourselves into a hole."
Wisconsin saw last Saturday in a shocking home loss to North Dakota State what can happen if its two stars—Tucker and Taylor—do not shoot the ball well. The duo finished just 8 of 42 in the loss, getting little help offensively from the remainder of the lineup.
A week later, however, the Badgers experienced first-hand that the duo cannot win every game by themselves either—no matter how well they play. Senior guard Ray Nixon was a crucial factor in Wisconsin even hanging around in the second half Saturday, scoring 11 of his 13 after halftime and looking assertive in two short jumpers off the glass that he took hard at the hoop.
Yet, with a shorter rotation the Badgers need other players to step forward in contributing roles if they hope to be successful, especially on the road. Forward Brian Butch has averaged just five points per game over the past three and center Jason Chappell has not scored more than five points since the loss to Pittsburgh.
If the Badgers allow themselves to fall behind early, it will take either an opportunistic hot hand or a consistent low-post presence to battle back in the face of adversity. On Saturday, Wisconsin needed both of those things to happen and got just the former from Nixon.
The bigs, on the other hand, were roughed up by Wolverines Graham Brown, Chris Hunter and Courtney Sims. That trio accounted for 40 points to just 11 by Wisconsin players Butch, Chappell and Kevin Gullikson.
"They were working hard," Gullikson said. "Sims and Brown were just working hard trying to get open and they were successfully pinning guys on their backs. That was getting them open and getting them easy shots."
The adage in the Big Ten is "win at home, split on the road." If the Badgers can win versus Illinois and at Purdue next week, they will have done just that about midway through the conference season, going 5-0 at home and 2-2 away from the Kohl Center. But by the time the conference comes down to the wire with trips to Iowa and Michigan State in the final week of play, the Badgers can again expect to find themselves in uncomfortable surroundings. At that point they will need role players to step up, with strong play in the paint or hot shooting from the perimeter, to overcome the crowds.
No matter how well Tucker and Taylor can perform, Wisconsin will need to, as Taylor said, "come together more as a team."