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Tom Oates: It's time for Wisconsin to put up or shut up

Tom Oates: It's time for Wisconsin to put up or shut up

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Once upon a time, things like regular-season conference championships and conference tournament titles meant something in men’s college basketball.

That time has long since passed. These days teams mostly are remembered for what they do in March.

Well, the clock has struck March for the Badgers.

This UW team, which began with through-the-roof expectations but has lacked consistency all season, has one final chance to make its mark. In March, the Badgers have two more regular-season games — both on the road — followed by the Big Ten Conference tournament and then the NCAA tournament.

The senior-dominated Badgers have spoken frequently about shrugging off their disappointing regular season and leaving a good impression by finishing strong. You know, like they did a year ago.

UW showed last season, when it won its final eight games to tie for the Big Ten title before the COVID-19 outbreak shut down the season, that it can be done. But the end of last season seemed a long way off Saturday when fifth-ranked Illinois handed the 23rd-ranked Badgers a 74-69 loss on Senior Day at the Kohl Center.

What made the game particularly frustrating was that it maintained a pattern followed by UW in losses to the top teams in the conference. The Badgers shoot poorly for long stretches, especially at the start, get bullied by physical big men inside and spend most of the game trying to dig themselves out of a hole.

To their credit, the Badgers shook off their mounting frustration and, behind guard D’Mitrik Trice’s late-game offensive explosion, almost caught the Illini at the end. But for a team that has yet to record a signature win, coming close at home against an Illinois team playing without national player of the year candidate Ayo Dosunmu just doesn’t cut it. Especially when it was exactly the type of game the Badgers needed to win if they wanted to enter March with the momentum that has eluded them all season.

Sure, the Badgers played with energy and passion in the last 3 minutes against the Illini, trimming a 14-point deficit to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can dismiss the first 37 minutes, when many of the same old problems surfaced for a team that dropped to 16-9 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten. For the most part, previously good shooters have been missing shots. Lots of shots. And it was more of the same Saturday.

Before Trice started raining 3-pointers on the Illini — he made five in the final 2:12 — the Badgers shot abysmally from the field and especially from 3-point range. Indeed, they were 4-for-25 on 3-point tries in the first 37 minutes.

“The effort gives me a lot of hope,” center Micah Potter said. “At the end of the year last year, we got really hot the last eight games. We’ve got more than eight games left in the year (if UW goes all the way). It’s one of those things. Obviously, making shots is a huge deal. I was not good today. I’ve got to be better. Give Meech (Trice) all the credit in the world for carrying us the last however many minutes. He was unbelievable. But I’ve got to be better. We’ve all got to be better against teams like that. Regardless of if they have Ayo or not, they’re still a good team. You’ve got to be able to make shots.”

Yes, the Badgers’ late-game effort was commendable. But a failure to consistently make shots has nagged this team almost since the start of Big Ten play.

Part of it is the opposition in a Big Ten that some are calling one of the strongest conferences ever. Six of UW’s eight Big Ten losses have come against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Illinois, which hold four of the top seven positions in the NCAA’s NET Rankings.

But UW beat several highly ranked teams last season with almost the same group of players. The Badgers’ prolonged shooting slump has prevented that from happening this season and now March is upon us. Or, more importantly, upon UW. Something has to change, and change soon.

“Playing for one another is one thing, but (it’s) also playing with confidence within yourselves,” Trice said. “I think our guys are shooting it but maybe not with the most confidence that they had maybe in the beginning of the year or how I see them shooting in practice. I think they’ve got to translate that to the game, including myself at times. I think it’s just a confidence thing that we’ve got to continue to work on.”

In basketball, a lack of confidence is one of many reasons for proven shooters consistently missing shots. The Big Ten is loaded with strong defensive teams and they may be shading toward UW’s outside shooters because Potter and Nate Reuvers haven’t been consistent inside scorers. Fatigue can be a factor as well. So is players putting pressure on themselves to match the expectations they and others have for themselves. Finally, shot selection can be an issue, though coach Greg Gard continues to say he’s pleased with most — but not all — of UW’s shot attempts.

UW’s fight and effort in a game that once seemed out of reach was good, but once again it couldn’t overcome poor shooting.

“This group has been extremely resilient,” Gard said. “They were resilient last year and they continue to be resilient this year. ... That gives us something to hold onto.”

As we hit March, it’s about all the Badgers have to hold onto.

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