Nixon steps to the forefront

Senior guard's more aggressive demeanor, and ability to hit the 3, spurred UW's late second-half run

MADISON — Ray Nixon was viewed as a steady defender, a quiet leader, a ball protector and an occasional deep threat. He was the kind of teammate one would love to have — selfless, anything but problematic, passionate on the court but never close to the point where it seemed he could ever butt heads with anyone.

Only, he could stand to be more aggressive, shoot the ball more and be — well, according to his teammates on the Wisconsin men's basketball team, a little less selfless and a little more problematic — for opponents that is.

Well, sure enough as the season has progressed, those whispers in his ear have Nixon singing a different tune — maybe one popularized by a different Ray. To anyone who thought they might have had the lone Wisconsin senior figured out, his play of late speaks for itself: ‘You don't know me.'

His performance Wednesday night might be the culmination of that neo-Nixonism. The long-armed, long-range threat did it from both beyond the 3-point arc and by driving in from it on the way to 13 points (on just six field-goal attempts) that came at the most timely of junctures for the Badgers, who prevailed 78-73 over Ohio State.

Beginning with a drawn foul from star Buckeye Je'Kel Foster with 5:49 remaining in the game, Nixon put together the most memorable string of possessions of his career. The Badgers trailed by five as Nixon took the ball from the official at the charity stripe. His aggressive move to the hoop sent Foster to the bench with four fouls, and his two free throws pulled Wisconsin within three.

Two possessions later Nixon connected from deep off a Brian Butch pass and followed it up on the next possession with a second strong move to the paint that tied the score at 64-64. Ohio State would never regain the lead.

Fast forward two possessions once again and Nixon capped off his run in style with a second big 3-pointer after the Buckeyes cheated down to contain Alando Tucker. That shot put the Badgers up for good at 69-66 and finished off a 3:24 run in which Nixon scored 10 of 12 Wisconsin points during an eight-point swing.

"He did a nice job," coach Bo Ryan said. "He gave us a good spark there."

The uncharacteristic "2" that read beneath the turnover heading in Nixon's line of the box score was of course not welcomed — just the second time this year he has had that many giveaways — but the Badgers will take that timely shooting and his three assists any day of the week.

It is a style of play that the taller-than-average off guard has begun to make his own in recent weeks. Although he had attempted more shots in previous games, one could argue that something lit beneath Nixon nearly three weeks ago in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Following the loss it was Tucker who was noticed for keeping the Badgers in the game and Kammron Taylor for nearly leading a miraculous comeback single-handedly down the stretch. Yet it was Nixon who hit a couple of crucial 3-pointers in between those feats and perhaps more importantly made two moves in which he dribbled hard at the hoop and confidently pulled up for short jumpers — something he had not been apt to do in similar situations in the past.

Last Wednesday against Indiana it was again Nixon — 3 of 5 from 3-point range, as in the Michigan and Ohio State games — who provided a complement to Tucker once the latter had dominated the paint and drawn the attention of multiple defenders at the elbow or on the low block. One week later and he managed to do it again.

"I felt I was pretty confident, because so many people dropped down on Alando," Nixon said. "We got an open look because he was so successful on the inside. He tells us to get open and find a spot and he'll find you."

Granted, Nixon does not always make those shots. Obviously that is the key ingredient, as Ryan pointed out after the game. Against Illinois, Nixon had multiple opportunities in the second half to help ignite a comeback but went 1-for-7 from outside. Yet, the poise and confidence, the lack of hesitation, even a growing tendency to call for the ball was more evident whether he is connecting or not.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta answered questions after the game as to whether Nixon was the so-called forgotten man behind Tucker, Taylor and Butch — who just played the back end of his most impressive two-game streak to-date.

"Yeah, that's a huge thing with Wisconsin," Matta said. "They've got their system, and they've got their pieces to the puzzle. They've got a great basketball team because of that."

Nixon was always a solid defender and at 6-foot-7 presents a unique challenge for many guards. Ohio State was held to its fewest made 3s of the season Wednesday, connected on just 4 of 17. Much of that can be attributed to the way Wisconsin was able to disrupt the Buckeye perimeter game. Nixon rarely allowed players to get a look over his larger frame and was able to put his size and discipline to use in the Wisconsin gameplan.

But now as the Badgers look to make their stretch run at a conference title — one which they now have somewhat of an inside track at — the evolution of Ray Nixon provides a weapon that will surely be needed again. It was one his teammates knew was there from day one. Perhaps it took this long for Ray Nixon to truly ‘know Ray Nixon.'

Against Ohio State, he made sure to introduce himself.

Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is the editor of creative sportswriting site

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