Its clumsy journey through Big Ten Conference play — two steps forward, one step back — has been a topic of discussion for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
“We keep talking” about it, senior guard Brad Davison said. “We win two, then we lose, we win two, then we lose. We’ve got to get over that hump. Once you win three in a row, it becomes a habit. So we’ve got to string a few together here and get on a roll.”
If the Badgers’ form holds — they’ve followed a two-game winning streak with a defeat three times in conference action — they’re due for a win following a 74-62 home loss to Ohio State on Saturday. No. 14 UW (12-4, 6-3 Big Ten) will try to get back on track when its plays Maryland (9-7, 3-6) on Wednesday night at the Xfinity Center in College Park.
The Badgers will find themselves at the midway point of the Big Ten schedule after playing the Terrapins for the second time in less than a month. There’s plenty of time for UW to find itself, though the combination of its inconsistency and a loaded schedule over the second half of conference play makes a run at a second consecutive Big Ten title seem unlikely.
Then again, who saw the Badgers’ late-season surge coming last season? UW was 13-10 at one point, including 6-6 in the Big Ten, before running the table in its final eight games to secure a share of the regular-season championship.
So why hasn’t Greg Gard’s team been able to pick up where it left off in March? The biggest difference between the Badgers’ 8-0 run to end last season and their 6-3 start in Big Ten play this season has been production from 3-point range.
UW shot 41.0% from beyond the arc over the final eight games in 2019-20. It made 86 compared to 41 for its opponents, an average difference of almost 17 points per game over that span.
While opponents are shooting slightly better from 3-point range over the first nine conference games this season, UW’s shooting average from beyond the arc has fallen to 33.7%. A team built on spreading the floor with perimeter shooters only is outscoring its opponents by an average of 4 points per game from long distance.
“We always say averages average out,” said Davison, reciting a line he’s used previously. “So if you have a game where you’re not shooting it well, that means the next game you’re going to knock them down. You can’t stop shooting.
“We have a lot of different guys on our team that shooting is a great strength and a great weapon for them. It forces the defense to spread out, it forces the defense to run you off the line. We don’t necessarily talk about 2s and 3s, we just talk about good shots. If the shot’s there, you’ve got to trust it, you’ve got to take it.”
UW went 7 of 28 from 3-point range in its loss to Ohio State, and Gard said after the game he thought the majority of those misses were good looks. He stuck with that opinion after re-watching the game.
Gard said Monday there were about a dozen misses that he “would take every day of the week, that were wide open. And I’m talking wide open.”
Yes, that also means there were a half-dozen or more 3-point shot attempts that Gard believes could be classified as poor in terms of selection. He has reiterated the importance of getting the ball into what UW calls the TFZ — 10-foot zone — and taking advantage of inside-outside looks in which players are stepping into their shot rather than moving side to side.
Gard also is leery about getting inside his players’ heads.
“There’s a point in time, too, where you don’t want to overanalyze it and micromanage shot selection,” he said, “because then you have players second-guessing.”
Senior center Micah Potter believes some of what UW is going through is “the ebbs and flows of the season,” something the Badgers certainly experienced last season as well.
“Obviously we’re not as consistent as we’d like to be. We know where we can be potentially, and we’ve shown flashes of that throughout the season,” Potter said. “But part of the long year, especially in a league like the Big Ten, every single game is a tough one. There’s no gimmes. It’s the deepest league in the country by far and it’s never been like this ever in its history. Every game is tough, so that’s just part of it. You’ve just got to make sure you learn from your mistakes and bounce back for the next one.”
UW spent the first part of this week trying to learn from the mistakes it made during its first game against Maryland, a 70-64 loss to the Terrapins on Dec. 28 at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers shot better than 35% from 3-point range (38.1) and finished with single digits in turnovers (seven), which is normally a recipe for victory for the program. But UW’s defense collapsed in the second half, when Maryland shot 64% percent and scored 46 points.
The Terrapins scored 26 points in the paint after halftime, with 13 of their 16 made field goals coming from that area. Their other three baskets were from 3-point range.
Much of that damage came with Maryland using a small lineup that included Donta Scott, a 6-foot-7 forward, surrounded by four guards.
“Obviously that presents some challenges and it’s going to test our adherence to rules and just playing within our system,” Gard said. “We’ve got to be better on the ball in terms of containing dribble penetration initially but also in the layers that build our defense. They, probably more than any other team just because of the lineup they put on the floor, challenge that as much as any team in the league.”
While it may seem like UW is allowing more at the rim this season, that’s not the case. The Badgers have allowed an average of 30.4 points in the paint through nine conference games, down slightly from the 31.8 they allowed during their eight-game winning streak to close last season.
UW can’t be a sieve defensively, but it really just needs to get back to shooting the ball the way it did last February and early March.
“With the amount of talent and the amount of pieces that we have on our team,” Davison said, “we know that we’re going to find a way to get the ball in the hoop one way or another.”