The play of this year's Wisconsin Men's Basketball team has time and time again been called ugly. It has been said that they're successful, but they don't look pretty doing it. Now I'm sure that their head coach Bo Ryan couldn't care less, and I doubt any of the players take offense. Still, it is time that someone sets the record straight.
Here's a quick and, I would argue, fairly undisputed description of Wisconsin basketball. Moving off the ball, ball reversals, touching the post, finding the open player, and taking high percentage shots. Protecting the basket in transition, moving the feet, taking charges, and contesting jump shots.
While the Badgers' style may not be as glamorous as the up and down play of teams like North Carolina or Kansas, it is not ugly. It's disciplined, it's fundamental, and it is basketball in its purest form. Most importantly, it has led to a 31-4 record and a trip to the Sweet 16.
Ugly is watching talented basketball teams turn the ball over and take off-balance, contested jump shots. Ugly is being called for defensive fouls for reaching in or trying to make highlight reel blocks.
Here's a quick quiz: What do all of the following teams have in common? Clemson, USC, Pittsburgh, Marquette, and Drake. Answer: They all played some ugly basketball and despite being very talented, they've all started their off-season.
That's not to say these Badgers are incapable of playing ugly basketball (see 18 turnovers against Duke or 33% from the field at home against Purdue for example), but more often than not, Wisconsin basketball is far from ugly.
Earlier this week, Wisconsin guard Michael Flowers articulated it best. "We look for good shots," he said "Even if it calls for us to run the shot clock down."
Notice what he said. "EVEN if it calls for us to run the shot clock down." He didn't say, "We run the shot clock down to get a good shot." There is a world of difference.
Less talented teams sometimes use the strategy of running down the shot clock as far as possible before shooting. The thinking there is that by extending possessions, they can shorten the game and minimize the talent differential.
A perfect example of this strategy was on display in the Badgers' non-conference game against Delaware State last season. Knowing that his team was severely overmatched, Delaware State's coach tried to slow the game way down. On nearly every possession, he had one of his big men bring the ball upcourt. Once crossing the time line, the unguarded player would simply dribble off time until the shot clock got under 15 seconds at which point a guard would come, get the ball, and then try to attack the basket.
The goal was undoubtedly to minimize the number of possessions for both teams and effectively shorten the game. This unorthodox strategy kept Delaware State close for nearly the entire 40 minutes. The Badgers led by only five at half and ended up winning by only eight, despite being a much more talented basketball team.
This year's Badger team does not run the offense just for the sake of running the offense. As Flowers said, they run the offense to get a high percentage shot. Working the ball around allows for more screens to be set within the confines of the swing offense, and more screens means a better chance of freeing a player up for an open shot. Additionally, the longer an opposing player has to play defense, the more tired he gets, and the more likely he is to make a mistake. Anyone can play good defense for 10 seconds, but it takes a special level of fitness and mental toughness to play solid defense for 25 or 30 seconds. (Incidentally, Wisconsin has these type of players, which contributes to their success all the more.)
Purposely running the shot clock down to slow the pace of play would be counterproductive for this year's squad. As mentioned before, less talented teams want to shorten the game, and contrary to what many people think, Wisconsin is a very talented team. The fact that the Badgers don't have a "go to" scorer does not mean that they don't have talent.
If you have five $20 bills in your left pocket, are any of those worth less than the one $20 bill in your right pocket? It seems to me that because the Badgers are so balanced, they have more talent. While Wisconsin may not be loaded with future pros, they have a roster full of capable basketball players and can go at least seven deep without missing a beat.
Contrary to popular opinion, this balanced and talented Wisconsin team is playing some of the country's prettiest basketball in recent memory. More importantly, it has led to a school record in wins, a regular season conference championship, a conference tournament championship, and two NCAA tournament wins. How much farther can this style take Ryan and his team?
That question remains unanswered, but if the Badgers play "ugly" basketball, you can call me Joakim Noah.