Despite back-to-back losses Traevon Jackson says the Badgers confidence hasn't wavered.
Sky not falling in Madison
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The University of Wisconsin has lost two straight games after a 16-0 start. They fell out of the Top 5 in the national polls for the first time in more than a month. And their 3-2 start in Big Ten play has them looking up at the likes of Michigan State and Michigan. That slide has many fans worried about the prospects for UW coach Bo Ryan’s 13th team in Madison. But for the 16 players on the roster there is no “the sky is falling” type of feeling.
“That’s just how the common fan is,” Sam Dekker said. “When you’re winning people are like, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ and when you’re losing, walking down the street people are trying to be coaches and thinking they know how to solve cancer. But that comes with them being die-hard and into this program.”
The fact is at this time last week Wisconsin was one of four unbeaten teams in the country and ranked No. 4 in the nation. But a three-point loss at Indiana and a seven-point home loss to Michigan has them looking for answers. They dropped five spots in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll to No. 8 and six slots in the Associated Press Poll to No. 9. That type of drop would send the confidence of some teams into a tailspin but not this group.
“We know what we need to do,” Traevon Jackson said. “For us to lose confidence right now is to lose confidence in what’s been going well for the last (four months). You go through ups and downs. The biggest thing is staying consistent, staying level-headed. Keep pressing on toward the mark. If we keep that mental picture on our mind, if we keep our end goals in mind and not let anything else distract us. That keeps us grounded and that keeps us hungry and humble.”
Given a few days to digest the losses – specifically the one to Michigan – the Badgers weren’t feeling nearly as bad as they did right after the game on Saturday. While most of their struggles on defense against Indiana were self-inflicted, the perceived issues on that end of the floor versus the Wolverines were a combination of some Wisconsin mistakes but also a very good game plan and execution by Michigan.
“You break the Michigan game down, I have not seen a team hit tough 2s as well as they did, off the move, having the pull-up,” Ryan said. “But defensively we took away all the dribble drives along the baseline for the kicks to the corner that Michigan gets a lot of. We really only got beat baseline once. We forced guys where we wanted to force them.
“I thought they did a pretty good job of certain things that we worked on, blocking out, taking away dribble drives.
“Just picked the wrong day to play Michigan.”
Not that they were OK with the loss. They weren’t. Jackson was still lamenting not being able to finish off the comeback that got them within one point in the final two minutes of the game after trailing by 15 at one point.
“Credit to them,” Jackson said. “They shot the ball very, very well. But at the end of the day we still had a chance to win. Our team was looking for a void to be filled. Part of that was me not playing as well as I needed to play. Teams are going to shoot well, and you can’t really let that affect you. We had to make adjustments in the game. Fortunately we came back, we just couldn’t finish like we wanted to. That’s where I needed to close it out to help get us in the right positions to score. Learn from it and move on.”
To move on they must be more consistent on both ends of the floor but especially on defense. While this year’s group is the most efficient offensive team in Ryan’s tenure – their 1.22 points per possession is tied for first in the Big Ten and blows away the Badgers second-best number (1.16) in his 13 years – Wisconsin’s defense is one of the least efficient.
The Badgers are allowing .952 points per possession this season, which ranks 56th in the country and is the fifth highest figure under Ryan. Last year’s team finished 12th in the nation at .879, but that team featured an experienced group of front-court players in Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz. This year they are counting on guys that have previously played sparingly (Frank Kaminsky), not at all (Nigel Hayes) or are out of position (Dekker, Duje Dukan).
“I think we can be a real good defensive team. And we have at times but we just haven’t been as consistent as we’d like to be,” assistant coach Gary Close said. “When you lose three front court players, who were all really good defensive players, defense is tough to play. It looks like it’s very simple but the reads, reacting and knowing where guys are and exchanges that have to happen in a split second. When you have guys that have done it for a long time, it’s easier. We’ve got guys that are going through this, in some cases, for the first time, and so it’s going to take a little time. We’ve shown signs that we can do it. We just haven’t done it consistently.”
In their last two games – and their only two losses – Wisconsin allowed Indiana to put up 1.19 points per possession and Michigan was at 1.15.
“Some games we’ve done OK and in other games it’s been too high. The last two games for sure have been too high,” Close said. “I thought we played much better defensively against Michigan than we did against Indiana.
“Not enough to beat a team like that but we were certainly better than we were in Indiana.”
That improvement will need to continue if the Badgers are going to get back to their winning ways. And it’ll have to happen on the road as Wisconsin travels to Minnesota on Wednesday before they head to West Lafayette for a tussle with Purdue on Saturday.
“Obviously you don’t want to lose (the Michigan and Indiana) games because you want to keep that streak going that we had but Wednesday’s another opportunity for us to start a new streak,” Dekker said. “Why can’t we go off and win 16 in a row again? But it starts with day one. It starts today in practice and preparing for Minnesota.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin