Wisconsin fell to 8-5 in the Big Ten (18-8 overall), just one game behind conference leaders Ohio State and Iowa. But the Badgers have two of their last three games on the road, against Iowa and Michigan State. This game at Welsh-Ryan Arena was one the Badgers, who are now 2-4 in conference road games, had to have.
The Badgers still have considerable opportunity to work their way into the title mix, beginning with a home game versus Minnesota Sunday. But their possibilities grew much more challenging after this loss.
"We knew what we were playing for," said sophomore forward Brian Butch, who had nine rebounds and two points. "We knew what we had to do. We just didn't get it done, and that's the frustrating part. We just have to be ready to go on Sunday now. We've still got a chance here."
Wisconsin out of sync offensively essentially from the opening tip, but particularly in a dreadful second half in which they shot just 32 percent from the floor.
Missing shots was simply a symptom of a larger problem Thursday night. Northwestern featured a 1-3-1 zone defense that befuddled Wisconsin, completely taking it out of its offense. The Badgers were 4 of 14 from 3-point range, but the act of heaving from long range was not necessarily the problem. Wisconsin has beaten zones with similar shot tallies—as long as a reasonable share of the attempts go in.
Thursday, however, the Badgers were allotted few shots in rhythm against an active defense that closed out on shooters, surrounded players in the post (on the few occasions the Badgers attempted to attack the zone in the paint), and—most importantly—flustered UW into playing catch along the perimeter, often significantly removed from the 3-point arc and any area of the court a defense would find threatening.
"We didn't execute. That's all that can be said," Butch said. "It shouldn't have been that hard. We practiced four days—we practiced with it, we've seen it, we played them once before with it, it was just a lack of execution."
"In the second half we didn't look to attack at all," junior point guard Kammron Taylor said.
Alando Tucker, who had not practiced since injuring his ankle or lower leg early in Monday's workout, was off his game. The junior forward led UW with 14 points, but connected on just 6 of 14 shots and struggled to assert himself inside. He had only one rebound.
"Alando played hard, but timing-wise I think he would admit that maybe he was a little off," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "But that's not the reason for the outcome of the game."
"You miss a couple days, it always throws off the timing… I know I was trying to get back into the flow of everything," Tucker said. "When you take a couple days off… when you get back on the floor the team has to get adjusted all at once, trying to play with you again."
Tucker's struggles—injury or no injury—were the rule rather than the exception for the Badgers Saturday. Wisconsin in general had a difficult time attacking Northwestern's zone, which played passing lanes effectively and harassed the Badgers to a tune that belied the official 10-turnover count assigned to UW.
"They played their butts off," Butch said. "They played hard. They were more aggressive than us… We just didn't match their intensity and that's what happens."
Point guard Kammron Taylor, who scored 11 points on 4 of 14 shooting, became timid at the point, as Northwestern extended its defense and forced him to throw over the top, usually sending a cross court pass to the opposite wing.
"We didn't move well, but when you get a look, you've got to make something happen," Ryan said. "We had some drives to the basket where we shot some floaters—shots that I've never seen before. But you can't get those back."
The Wildcats, while not prolific offensively, essentially got what they wanted when they needed a basket. Mohamed Hachad had his way with the Badgers for most the game, scoring 25 points on 11 of 17 shooting. Most of his offense came on layups after successfully cuts or drives to the rim. UW did not have anyone defensively who could hang with him Thursday night.
"He has surprised me for four years," NU coach Bill Carmody said. "He was terrific out there from the get-go, cutting hard and doing things. He is a risk-taker, and it turned out well for us tonight."
NU also received 13 points from forward Vedran Vukusic, including 11 in the first half when he too had a seemingly easy time getting to the rim.
"He had some pretty bad stomach problems before the game," Carmody said. "We figured he would wear down a little bit and he it looked like he did. There are so many timeouts these days that you are on the bench almost every two minutes. Whenever he came over to the bench I would tell him, ‘Drink a lot of water and you will be okay.'"
Wisconsin trailed just 31-28 at halftime, but struggled immensely on the offensive end in the second half, at one point going about 12 minutes without a field goal.
"We let their junk defenses throw us off," Tucker said. "We didn't respond well to those."
Northwestern made a living at the free-throw line after halftime, going 16 of 20 for more than half the team's second-half points. The Wildcats made their last 15 free throws in the game, including eight in the final two minutes to preserve the win.
Through it all, Wisconsin still was able to draw within 56-51 on Taylor's two charity shots with 1:22 left to play. But Tucker missed a jumper with about a minute left, senior guard Ray Nixon missed a pair of free throws with 55.7 seconds remaining and Tucker turned the ball over with about 42 seconds left.
With 46.9 seconds left, as Hachad was putting his last two points on the board with a pair of free throws, a cheer of "Just like football" rang out from the crowd, a reference to the Wildcats' 51-48 home win on the gridiron last fall. Just like that football game, Thursday's contest was played before a crowd with about as much Badger red as Wildcat purple in attendance. And just like that game, this one ended with a huge dent in Wisconsin's Big Ten championship hopes.
"I think we're all looking for an answer why," Butch said. "It is one of those things where we just didn't come out and play… It is one of those things that is confusing and frustrating and makes it even sting worse."