MADISON, Wis. — When Ryan Evans gathered the basketball with 2:35 remaining in the first half of Tuesday night’s game, a palpable buzz settled across the Kohl Center.
The collective hum of Wisconsin’s curious fan base suggested everyone had the same question on the brain: Would Evans actually attempt a jump shot from the free-throw line as he suggested days earlier?
Sure enough, Evans took two dribbles, stepped into a jumper and rattled in his free-throw attempt, much to the delight of an announced crowd of 17,026. As Evans jogged back down court, he lifted his hands in the air, and the cheers grew even louder. No. 17 Wisconsin would go on to crush Nebraska, 77-46, but in a game that was over before halftime, Evans’ unusual technique served as one of the most major developments.
The fact a free throw could cause so much commotion should say something about how difficult Evans’ season has been from the line. Wisconsin’s 6-foot-6 senior forward has endured one of the more peculiar free-throw slumps in college basketball with no explanation as to why the sudden slide transpired.
Before the season, his career accuracy rate was 71.1 percent. But this season, it had dropped to an astonishing 40.5 percent — and some attempts weren’t even close.
On Tuesday, Evans resorted to using a jump shot at the line for the first time because his midrange game is one of his best offensive attributes. He had spent the past few days honing the shot in practice, and he made both of his in-game attempts against the Cornhuskers.
“It worked tonight, so I’m going to keep it going,” Evans said. “It felt good. I think it might have been the first time all season I went 100 percent from the free-throw line, so that’s an accomplishment. It’s a big part of my game. I feel a lot more confident out there.”
It was, in fact, only the second game this season in which Evans had made all of his free-throw attempts … he also shot 2 for 2 against Illinois on Jan. 12. Most of his previous performances this season suggested he had never shot a free throw in his life: 1 for 8, 1 for 9, 2 for 8 and a slew of other ugly numbers.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan was the first to suggest Evans should make a drastic change. Ryan cited the stylings of former professional basketball player Hal Greer, who also used a jump shot at the line. Greer made 80.1 percent of his free-throw attempts during his 15-year pro career and played in 10 All-Star games.
Ryan said Evans finally appeared to possess the belief that his free throws would go in before attempting them — no small feat for Evans.
“He’s worked hard before,” Ryan said. “It’s a fallacy to think that just working hard gets good things done. There’s a lot more to it. He feels pretty comfortable. He was hitting them in practice. And before he was missing in practice. So if you’re hitting in practice, then why wouldn’t you shoot that way in the game?
“He was pretty excited in case you couldn’t tell. Feels good in life when you’re working on overcoming something that is a negative. I’m working on a lot of them.”
Evans was asked if he thought the Kohl Center crowd’s over-exuberant celebrations of his made free throws were a hindrance.
“I think the crowd helps me,” Evans said. “They’ve been great to me. Our fans here have been phenomenal over the years. I appreciate every single one of them. It was something that was kind of in my head. I’m moving forward out of that. I felt real confident out there today in this new technique. I’m just happy to be out there and knock them down tonight.”
Berggren blocks: Wisconsin center Jared Berggren blocked four shots against Nebraska to bring his career tally to 126 and become the program’s all-time leader in blocked shots. He passed Rashard Griffith, who registered 124 blocks in his two seasons at Wisconsin (1993-95).
“To think about all the good players that have come through here, for me to come out on top of that record, it’s a pretty cool moment,” Berggren said. “I’m not a guy that’s real big on individual accomplishments and individual stats, but it’s kind of a cool deal I guess.”
Berggren said he knew he needed two blocks to tie the mark before the game — and he didn’t take long to pull alongside Griffith. He blocked two shots in the first 80 seconds of the game and later broke the mark when he altered a Nebraska shot in the lane.
It was the seventh game this season in which Berggren had recorded four blocks. He registered a season-high seven blocks against Iowa on Feb. 6.
Ryan said Berggren’s forte was swatting shots without fouling, and that’s what has made him so successful. He then cited a game from his coaching days at UW-Platteville in which his team shot 29 percent from the field and still won by shooting 30 free throws. Three players on the other team, Ryan noted, fouled out because they attempted to block every shot.
“You know, it’s not the blocks,” Ryan said of Berggren. “It’s the changes of shots and his intimidation and the fact that he’s there. He doesn’t intimidate because he’s got a bad haircut. He doesn’t intimidate because he looks mean. He doesn’t intimidate because he’s got 900 tattoos. He intimidates by his presence and his timing. It’s not just the blocks.”