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MADISON - Using words ‘smart' and ‘strong' and ‘heady,' Greg Gard can accurately paint a picture of what senior guard Jordan Taylor was all about when the Wisconsin associate coach first saw him at an open gym roughly seven years ago.
"You could tell he had a presence about him," recalled Gard. "I think where he has come from, even where he was as a senior in high school, is remarkable. He's a kid that's been determined, knew what we wanted, had goals in mind and set out to get them."
Taylor is Wisconsin's facilitator on the basketball court, the general, the point man and the straw that stirs the drink known as the swing offense, and he'll do that in the Kohl Center for the last time Sunday when No.14 Wisconsin takes on struggling Illinois in the regular season finale.
Through his first two-plus seasons in Madison, the Bloomington, MN, native was known more for his vision than his jumper. He was Minnesota's Mr. Basketball after winning a state championship at Benilde-St. Margaret's, averaging 22.3 points and 7.1 assists per game as a senior, and his first two years under Ryan were more of the same: he led the Badgers with a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman, and was third in the nation with a 3.03 ratio as a sophomore.
That was Taylor's game until midway through last season. Until conference play began against Minnesota, Taylor had scored at least 20 points in only 7 of 78 games; in the 11 conference games last season before a matchup with No.1 Ohio State, Taylor scored at least 20 seven times, including a 30-point performance against Michigan State.
Taylor was becoming more rounded as a player, but he still wasn't considered one of the top point guards in the country, a fact that was reinforced when his name was left off the list of the 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award.
Maybe the Cousy Committee was right. After all, Taylor, in his first big matchup on national television that season, was trying to get others involved before himself. His last attempted shot against the Buckeyes came when there was 16:24 left in the first half, and he could only scratch his head when an uncontested layup gave the visitors a 47-32 lead with 13:18 remaining in the game.
"I remember looking up the scoreboard when we were down 15, and I never really panicked myself," Taylor said. "Sometimes in games like that, guys would get that dejected look or you could tell that your teammates are kind of out of it, and nobody seemed that way. Guys had confidence that we could come back and I think that was the biggest thing."
As Taylor brought the ball up the court in a library-esque Kohl Center, Taylor kept facilitating, but he started aiding himself. He hit a jumper in the lane on the next possession after the Buckeyes took that 15-point lead, a jumper that brought a fist pump from freshman Josh Gasser on the perimeter.
Taylor became more active in the swing, was more aggressive moving the ball, directing traffic and drawing defenders, and when he hit a 3-pointer from the top of the circle, he was about to set the tone for the rest of the 2010-11 season, and for a senior season.
Jordan Taylor is a well-rounded force of a basketball player who can change the game in a moment's notice.
"When it's a big-time game, you look for your big-time players to perform and they have to deliver, and he's grown into that role," said Gard. "The thing that makes you the most proud is how he's developed and how he's grown. He's had a vision and a plan from day one, and he keeps working away at that day after day."
Taylor doesn't remember all the shots that dropped in his 21-point second half against OSU, or his 7-to-1 assist-to-turnover experience. That's called being in the zone. Taylor hit three 3-pointers without relying on his offense, hit another pair of jumpers by utilizing his teammates on ball screens and four of his assists led to two 3-pointers, a long jumper and a pair of free throws.
He did all of that in only 5 minutes, 50 seconds of game time, giving Wisconsin a lead it wouldn't relinquish and pounding his chest all the way down the court.
"I tend to remember a lot of plays from a lot of different games, but that whole day was kind of a blur," Taylor said. "That six minutes was pretty intense, but I remember most of it. A lot of guys were playing really loose, which is good to see because guys tend to tighten up or do too much when you are up or down a lot. That was probably as well as we played together all year.
"It was one game, a lot of fun that day and something I'll probably remember forever."
In part because of Taylor's nation-best 3.83 assist-to-turnover ratio, Taylor was an Associated Press second-team All-American selection after ranking fourth in the Big Ten with 18.1 points per game, including 20.1 ppg in Big Ten play, with a career-high 39 points at Indiana. He was also named to the 2011 Big Ten All-Defensive Team. All of this from a once lightly recruited point guard who had to almost convince Gard to give him a chance.
A College Chance
Taylor was an honorable mention all-state player his sophomore year when he drove down to Madison for a UW football game to see the campus and make an impression on the Wisconsin coaching staff. As he sat in Gard's office down the hall from Ryan's, Taylor asked what he had to do to play here.
Gard, one of Wisconsin's top recruiters, took the question as Taylor asking what he needed to do to play Division I basketball anywhere. As he often did, Gard laid out the parameters of having solid academics and basketball skills. In Taylor's case, academics were never a problem (he was a member of the National Honor Society and earned the Minnesota State High School League Outstanding Academic Achievement Award), but his entire game needed to be better – especially his strength - if he was going to be viable contributor for a college team.
Somewhere between Gard talking about Taylor's need to improve his shooting and his average decision making, Taylor interrupted to clarify his remark.
"Coach, you don't understand," the story goes. "What do I have to do to play here, at Wisconsin? I want to play at Wisconsin … That just shows you from a maturity level, you don't see many 15-, 16-year-old kids with that vision in mind."
Gard viewed Taylor as a person with a highly likable character and the raw skills to develop in a structured system, a smart student who could understand the bigger picture and be a general on the floor. If his skills could catch up to his intelligence and character, the Badgers might take a chance on him.
Taylor viewed Madison from two different aspects. One, he saw that the UW coaches were competitors, just like he was, getting frustrated when things didn't go right and working tirelessly to fix the problem so that the team could have success. Two, his older brother Brandon was good friends with former UW point guard Kammron Taylor. Despite the six-year age difference, Jordan Taylor got to be around Kammron and see how successful a point guard could be in Madison.
"My (high school) junior year, they (Wisconsin) were ranked No.1 in the country, and the year after they won the Big Ten," Taylor recalled. "Throw in the academics here and the school of business, and I just knew that this was it."
For two years Taylor waited, as UW coaches watched him in high school and the AAU circuit. They could afford to wait, as college coaches and scouts didn't see much in a sub-six-foot point guard other than the ability to shoot a little bit and occasionally deliver an impressive pass.
Wisconsin offered Taylor, rated a three-star guard, a scholarship during the fall of his junior year because, after really watching him, Ryan and Gard believed Taylor could develop into a good player if he put in the time, work and effort.
"I've always been small throughout my whole life … I didn't really grow until I was 16 … so I had a lot of people saying I was too small to play basketball," Taylor said.
Taylor has certainly changed that viewpoint.
Working long hours on perfecting his craft, Taylor posted the second-highest scoring increase in the Big Ten in back-to-back years, up 8.4 points per game in 2009-10 (from 1.6 to 10.0) and 8.1 points in 2010-11 (from 10.0 to 18.1). In his first year as a full-time starter, Taylor finished with 617 points, the fifth-highest single-season mark in school history, and he continues to be stingy with the ball, turning it over just 79 times in 71 career Big Ten games.
"As coaches, you always like to have your best player be your hardest worker, and when your hardest worker is your best player, you know you have something really special, and he is that," said Gard. "Nobody goes at it any harder than what Jordan has or works any harder than what he does. To watch him to go through that progression is great from a coaching staff standpoint."
With Wisconsin losing six seniors off last year's squad, including leading scorer Jon Leuer, Taylor had an even bigger load to carry with a team full of young contributors and just one other senior put in charge of replacing 46 percent of their minutes, 53.6 percent of their scoring, 54.7 percent of their rebounding and 68.8 percent of their assists from 2010-11.
So even though his numbers might be down compared to last season, his 16.4 points per conference game are seventh in the league, his 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio is third best and stats guru Ken Pomeroy says he's the seventh most efficient player in the country.
And he's delivered the message that he's going to do everything in his power to make sure his team stays successful, which is has with another top four Big Ten finish and a soon-to-be berth in the NCAA Tournament in all four of Taylor's years.
"There's no way we'd be where we are if it wasn't for Jordan," said Gasser. "Just the way he prepares us each and every game for what team's run is what makes us so good. Whether it's putting in a new set or in-game adjustments, that all comes from his leadership being a senior."
When he walked in to Wisconsin four years ago, Taylor didn't have any specific expectations in terms of playing time, All-American honors or a lasting legacy. He simply wanted one thing.
"I wanted to be successful," said Taylor. "I wanted to win games."
It's safe to say he's accomplished that and much more.