MADISON, Wis. — Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett said he considered holding up a mirror to his team during practice this week in preparation for Wednesday night’s game against Wisconsin — a symbolic reference to the programs’ similar styles of play.
There are reasons for the similarities, of course. Bennett began his coaching career at Wisconsin on the staff of his father, Dick, in 1999. He stayed on two seasons when current Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was hired in 2001. Among the traits Tony Bennett picked up along the way was the importance of patience, toughness and out-working opponents to seize every conceivable advantage.
“There’s subtle differences, but you’re going to play a team that values good shots and is going to try to make you work defensively,” Bennett told his team. “I think our guys were really ready for a battle.”
At least one team was at the Kohl Center.
In a sense, Virginia “out-Wisconsined” Wisconsin during a 60-54 victory as part of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Cavaliers were more aggressive on offense, more defensively sound and generally displayed more overall toughness.
It was an outcome that should be cause for concern for Wisconsin, which shot 38.2 percent from the field (21 for 55).
“I think we didn’t fight through contact the way you need to when you’re playing in a grind game like that,” Ryan said. “If we get to the rim stronger with the ball, we shoot a better percentage. And we did not do that. That has to be corrected.”
Wisconsin entered the night with an astounding 169-15 record at home since Ryan took over the program. The Badgers left with their first home non-conference loss in the month of November since a 65-60 loss to Marquette on Nov. 14, 1997.
Part of that streak can be attributed to the traditionally low level of competition during early-season home games, but Wednesday’s contest certainly was one Wisconsin should have won — the Badgers were actually 10 1/2-point favorites, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Instead, the Badgers displayed the shortcomings of a young team that isn’t quite playing with the confidence and relentlessness of past Wisconsin teams under Ryan. The Badgers didn’t attempt a single free throw for the first 34 minutes, 21 seconds of the game until freshman Sam Dekker went to the line with 5:39 remaining.
Wisconsin was out-rebounded 36-25 and shot just five free throws for the game.
“There was so many opportunities where there were loose balls,” Badgers center Jared Berggren said. “It seemed like every time we were close to getting a big stop, the ball would bounce up off the rim, get tipped around and end up in their hands.
“Those are toughness plays we didn’t make tonight. We’ve got to get a lot better going forward.”
The play that most epitomized Wednesday’s game occurred after Wisconsin rebounded a missed free throw by Virginia’s Akil Mitchell with 32 seconds remaining in the second half. Wisconsin trailed 58-54 at the time and needed a quick score to stay in the game. Instead, the Cavaliers squeezed the Badgers well outside the perimeter, and Wisconsin guard Ben Brust was forced to heave a contested 3-pointer from well beyond the top of the arc that fell short.
“I made the wrong play,” said Brust, who finished with a team-high 15 points on 6 of 16 shooting. “I was open right away and just got caught in no man’s land a couple times. I should have attacked, got fouled, or a score stops the clock.”
The sequence called to mind one of this Wisconsin team’s biggest weaknesses. Without junior point guard Josh Gasser, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, the Badgers do not have a player that can create a shot for himself or teammates in a crucial late-game situation. Last season, when Wisconsin finished 26-10 and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, it could rely on senior point guard Jordan Taylor to bail out the team in times of distress.
“We don’t have right now guards in that position with that experience yet,” Ryan said. “In practice you can get some. I think they’ll learn from this.”
Wisconsin (4-3) could be forgiven for its losses earlier this month on the road against No. 7 Florida and in a neutral site game against No. 11 Creighton. But to fall to a Virginia team (5-2) picked to finish seventh in the ACC that already has losses against George Mason and Delaware is alarming.
The Badgers have never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten during Ryan’s first 11 years in charge of the program. But this season, six Big Ten teams are ranked in the Associated Press top 25, with three in the top four. Wisconsin is not one of those six teams, and the Badgers will need to play well above their talent level to continue Ryan’s string of top-four conference finishes.
Players already seem to recognize the challenges that lay ahead.
“If we don’t grow from this,” Berggren said, “it’s going to be a long season.”