Those three season-opening victories, all with a high degree of difficulty, did wonders for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
They boosted UW to a No. 12 national ranking.
They allowed a program that normally takes its time building momentum to get off to a fast start.
And they gave the Badgers an idea of what to expect from some new faces who have been forced to assume greater roles.
Despite tense, hard-fought games against St. John’s, Florida and UW-Green Bay, junior Duje Dukan, sophomore Frank Kaminsky and freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig each had at least one stretch of outstanding play. Because those performances came against strong competition in games that were close, it proved that all of those players belong and put them solidly in coach Bo Ryan’s rotation.
But with those three games behind them and three games this week in which the Badgers would be heavily favored, it was time for UW to declare itself as a team. After having to win by hook or by crook in the first three, the Badgers returned to more traditional early season competition — translation: lesser opponents from smaller conferences — and went to work on experimenting and forging an identity as a team.
Well, UW made a declaration all right, but it wasn’t one anyone was expecting. In a game where Frank Kaminsky broke the school single-game scoring record with 43 points and the Badgers hit triple figures for the first time since 1995, UW had to sweat out a 103-85 victory over a spirited North Dakota team Tuesday night at the Kohl Center.
There are two reasons for that mystifying final score. First, the Badgers are clearly playing at a faster pace than they have for much of Ryan’s 13-year run at UW. Second, after losing their top three inside players, they are a work-in-progress on defense.
Whatever the reason, the final score promised to draw some quizzical looks from people who are accustomed to UW playing games in the 50s and 60s.
“They’re probably going to tell us that we played bad defense and gave up 85 points, which we did,” Kaminsky said. “We know we’ve got to get better on defense, but we scored a lot of points and we were efficient in how we scored.”
Surprisingly, Ryan doesn’t seem overly worried about UW’s defense and even less worried about its pace of play. Not at this point in the season anyway. And certainly not after UW hit 35 of its 59 shots.
“It depends on how easy of looks you’re getting down the floor and how fast they are,” he said. “We got open looks. We got good scoring opportunities and, when they present themselves, you don’t tell the players, ‘Well, no, don’t take that shot.’ There might have been three bad shots out of those 59 ... that I wouldn’t want us to take again.”
UW’s porous defense had to be a bit more alarming to Ryan. But if it was, he didn’t let on.
Not after North Dakota scored 40 or more in each half. Not after North Dakota’s three athletic perimeter slashers — Troy Huff, Jaron Nash and Aaron Andersen — nicked UW for 67 points on 27-for-41 shooting. Not after Huff, a Milwaukee native with UW ties, scored 37 points — the second straight game in which UW has allowed an opposing guard to surpass 30 points (Green Bay’s Kiefer Sykes scored 32).
The Badgers had trouble defending the dribble penetration, the pick-and-roll and the 3-point shot against North Dakota. For the game, the visitors shot 54.5 percent.
Some of UW’s problems on defense were due to inexperience, especially on the defensive interior, and some are due to the new rules that have stymied defenses throughout the country.
“They were hitting some tough shots and they were driving and they were putting our guys at a disadvantage,” Ryan said. “I think our guys with that new rule were a little leery about foul trouble. That plays into it somewhat right now. I think it’s played into it with a lot of teams. Guys aren’t sure, so they’ve got to learn. But if (quick) possessions present themselves, we’ll take the shots. We just can’t give up as much on the other end.”
Clearly, UW has much to figure out on the defensive end. But Ryan didn’t get to where he is by winning shootouts and it’s not likely these Badgers will try to do that all season. UW’s defense will get better. The question is: How soon?
“We have a lot of things we can correct, but we’ve got two more games coming up this week so we can put this defensive performance behind us and get better,” forward Sam Dekker said. “Things can only go up. This is our fourth game of the year. We have a lot to improve on and I think we’re going to do that. We can learn a lot from this game.”
If UW does improve its defense, things could get very interesting for the Badgers because they have a new look on offense — one that looks like it’s here to stay.