Surely, this was a typo. An honest mistake. A momentary lapse in judgment.
In the home opener?
For the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team?
No one at the Kohl Center was complaining, mind you, but there was something unfamiliar about the opponent that showed up for the 20th-ranked Badgers’ home opener Tuesday night.
In almost any other year, that would have been, say, Florida A&M coming to the Kohl Center, taking a licking and collecting a nice paycheck. Or if not A&M, then maybe Florida Atlantic or Florida International or North Florida would have made the trek north to help UW ease into its season with a guaranteed victory.
The 11th-ranked Gators, an NCAA Elite Eight team last March, promised to give Badgers fans a rare early season game to get excited about and, more important, a realistic glimpse at what they can expect from UW this season.
Now we know. These Badgers can play.
UW’s 59-53 victory over a rangy, athletic Florida team showed the Badgers, though they might not always look like the Badgers you’re used to seeing, have what it takes to compete against elite competition.
That’s always been the case under coach Bo Ryan. The difference is the Badgers proved it a little earlier this season with victories over St. John’s and Florida in their first two games.
“Someone told me that they kind of threw us in the deep end to start the year,” forward Sam Dekker said. “I don’t really look at it that way. I just think we’re a good team playing against other good teams. We’ll learn a lot from these games.”
Ryan has never shied away from scheduling tough opponents during the non-conference season. Indeed, this year’s slate might be the toughest in his 13 seasons. But not many of those difficult early games have been at home and none have been in the home opener.
Perhaps a bigger surprise than seeing Florida show up in mid-November was it did so in a year when UW has a young team, with many new faces playing key roles, especially up front after Ryan lost his all-senior frontline. The late-summer trip to Canada helped to get the Badgers ready, but if ever a UW team needed to work out the kinks with a few early season gimmes, this was it.
The Badgers had shot the lights out in their 86-75 neutral-site victory over St. John’s, but they quickly discovered Florida wasn’t St. John’s. The Gators’ always-sticky defense gave UW problems right from the start, including an airball by Dekker that barely beat the shot clock on the opening possession.
“When you shoot an airball on your first possession as a team, I don’t know if that’s a good omen,” Ryan said.
It wasn’t. In the blink of an eye, the Badgers trailed the Gators 16-4 and looked like they might have bitten off more than they could chew at this point in the season.
Worse, there was none of the slashing and attacking that had shown up in UW’s opener after being absent last season. Operating mostly from the perimeter, the Badgers missed seven of their first nine shots, all five of their 3-point attempts and had five turnovers.
Just as quickly it took Dekker to hit back-to-back 3s, however, UW got back into it. But it wasn’t only outside shooting that helped the Badgers outscore the Gators 25-10 the rest of the half. The comeback really began when freshman forward Nigel Hayes powered his way to a pair of inside baskets. That opened up the 3-point line for Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Ben Brust, and they shot the Badgers right back into the game.
Despite giving up size inside, UW competed tenaciously on defense and on the boards. However, it was the depth and versatility of UW’s offense that stood out in the first two games.
“I do think that their style of play has changed this year,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Not drastically. I think they’re doing the same thing inside the half court, but there’s a lot more freedom for those guys. I’m sure Bo feels like with the ability of those guys to shoot, they can probably squeeze off and steal some baskets in transition if you’re not alert and you don’t match up. I really like Jackson a lot as a player because he can really break you down off the dribble and the rest of those guys are hard, straight-line drivers and they put pressure on you. I think between them shooting 3s and them driving it, they’re going to be a team in my opinion that’s got an opportunity to get a lot of free throws with a lot of these new rule changes.”
That’s what happened in the second half, though UW’s lead was threatened late when Florida went to its always-tough press and the Badgers started coughing up the ball. Jackson struggled more than anyone, but as he did on multiple occasions last year, nailed a clutch jump shot with 10 seconds left to seal the victory.
As a result, what looked like a potential scheduling blunder instead turned into a huge win for the Badgers.