Time to act
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - If one thing was made clear on Thursday, it was that members of the University of Wisconsin (16-3, 3-3) basketball team believe the time for words is done.
They are sick of talking about the porous defense that’s been the biggest factor in a three-game losing streak. They are tired of answering the questions about how they can fix that defense before it makes their record start to the season even more of a distant memory.
The fact is, they are tired of trotting out the same clichés time after time. It may only be three games ago but Jan. 14 – when they sat at 16-0 prior to playing Indiana – could not feel any further away as they prep for a trip to Purdue (13-6, 3-3) on Saturday.
“(I) stood up here and said we’ve got to handle this down (point) and comeback,” Ben Brust said of his comments after the IU and Michigan losses. “Well we didn’t. I can sit up here and say, ‘oh we’ll do it next time,’ but until we actually do it, then it doesn’t matter.”
Words only mean so much and right now they mean very little for a squad coming off their most recent defeat – an it-wasn’t-as-close-as-the-score-indicates 81-68 loss to rival Minnesota on Wednesday.
It’s not just things in their control – like their defensive effort – that are going wrong. Even those outside of their control -- like the team bus getting speared by a security gate at the airport after the game, causing the squad's return to Madison to be delayed and leading assistant coach Greg Gard to muse, “It was the only thing that stopped anybody all night.”
In the Badgers case that was the truth. For a third straight time an opponent shot higher than 50 percent for the game, with the Gophers going 58.9 – the highest percentage Wisconsin had given up all year.
“I think if you’re looking at someone who’s shooting fifty-percent in a whole game, there’s enough possessions there where you can’t just say they were hot the whole game,” Brust said. “Obviously you’re doing something you need to be better at, which is get stops. We’re looking at that. Going to work on it. And then (we’ve) got to go produce.”
The shocking issues on the defensive end are truly that – a shock. Throughout UW coach Bo Ryan’s 13-year tenure the Badgers have taken so much pride in shutting down the other team’s offense. But they’ve now allowed their last five opponents to score more than 70 points and Minnesota scored on every second half possession (27) but six. The performance pushed Gard to use a word normally reserved for opposing goalies during UW hockey games at the Kohl Center.
“The standard’s been set in this program,” Gard said. “Defensively we’ve always been very in sync and very stingy and not a program that gives up easy baskets. I think that’s probably what’s so glaring and so out of the norm.
“One of the pillars has been what we’ve done defensively. When you have that type of offense created with such ease, that’s obviously out of the norm of what is expected here and what’s acceptable. That’s where we need to continue to mature and get better at. It was like a sieve. The ball kind of went right through us.”
The frustration was evident following the game and could be seen from the players that talked on Thursday. They had just come from a film session – one that was supposed to last a half-hour but that turned into over an hour. So many breakdowns to review and issues to solve, but also video evidence that all is not lost – not by a long shot.
“I think we know that the mistakes we make are fixable. We need to fix the defensive mistakes that are happening,” Brust said. “And I think when we were successful offensively, when we were as good as we were offensively in the past it was when we were getting stops. When we got stops, things opened up for us. We know what we need to do to be successful and now we’ve got to go do it.”
The defensive problems are a result of several factors. One, is inexperience on the interior. When you lose two fifth-year seniors in Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans, along with your best on-ball defender in Mike Bruesewitz, things are not going to be the same.
“It’s part of it,” Gard said of the relative inexperience of junior Frank Kaminsky and freshman Nigel Hayes. “Part of it is also physical and mental errors so a combination of all of those. You look at what Jared, Mike and Ryan gave us two fifth-year seniors and now we’re just reverting back to memories of Jared when he was Frank’s age, Nigel’s age. He wasn’t very experienced and went through a lot of the same growing pains. As he got more experience and understood he got very good at it and that’s the process these guys are going through right now.”
And doing it in the toughest conference in the country, the Big Ten, where when a team smells blood or a weakness they attack. And that’s what’s happened on ball screens. IU’s Yogi Ferrell wasn’t the first to exploit the Badgers lack of cohesion in those two man games but he took advantage of it to the tune of 25 points. Deandre Mathieu did the same on Wednesday night when he put up 18.
“I think they are very conscious about protecting the rim and making sure nobody can come to the rim,” Gard said of Kaminsky and Hayes. “But you almost open yourself up to more penetration by not being there…We get over anxious and let the big run in behind us. It seems like we’re either too far up or too far back. We’re never in the right position.”
The breakdowns can be traced to the offense as well. A poor shot or long rebound can lead to fast break points. The Badgers have worked tirelessly at transition defense but it remains an issue.
“There’s probably not a program in the country that emphasizes and works on transition defense more than we do,” Gard said. “But it’s also because we knew it was an area of importance that we’ve always emphasized because it is. Teams are going to spread the floor, shoot threes, drive it to the rim. You get caught scrambling, get outnumbered in transition so you have to have a plan and work that plan. At times we do it well and other times we become splintered by it.”
Despite the three losses the confidence is still there – at least that’s the vibe the players are giving off publically. Brust said they can beat any team in the country, but they need to go out and prove it on a consistent basis. And his teammate, Sam Dekker, didn’t disagree.
“You can’t look at teams as being better than you. You’ve got to go out there and know you belong and know you’re going to win and know that you’re going to do everything in your power to get your team the win,” he said.
“I understand where Ben is coming from that. He’s not trying to be arrogant in any way. He’s just saying that we’ve got to know that we’re going to be the better team on the court. We’ve got to know that we have the guys to do it and that if we do what we do, we’re going to win.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin