Badgers regain shooting touch from deep
MADISON, Wis. — Bo Ryan can't pinpoint exactly what has changed in his team over the past 10 days, and he isn't one to dwell on dissecting the answers anyway. Basketball is a fickle game, he said, and 3-point shooting is an even more fickle art.
But even Ryan, in his 11th season as Wisconsin's coach, had to admit on Wednesday night that the Badgers' newfound long-range touch was a welcomed sight. That's because two weeks ago, his team's inexplicable slump left him scratching his head, particularly since players weren't doing anything different in practice or games.
Wisconsin's inability to make open shots on the perimeter had sunk the team into the depths of Big Ten despair after four games, at 1-3. And with no way of knowing whether the slump would vanish quickly, the Badgers seemingly were on the cusp of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Only three schools — Kansas, Duke and Michigan State — have a longer active streak.
For a Badgers fan base that had never seen Wisconsin finish worse than tied for fourth in the Big Ten under Ryan, it was enough to send them into a panic.
In a span of just 10 days, however, Wisconsin has found its rhythm and may have saved its season. The latest Houdini act came on Wednesday night, when Wisconsin drilled 12 3-pointers and rolled to a 77-57 victory against Northwestern at the Kohl Center.
"The game doesn't change for us what we're trying to do," Ryan said. "At times, everybody goes through this with shooting. I've seen it more in the past couple of years than probably 10 years combined, just kind of the swings in shooting percentages. Guys' confidence, guys being comfortable with what they're doing. What's changed? We've done some good things."
Wisconsin's win, coupled with Indiana's stunning loss at Nebraska on Wednesday, moved the Badgers into a familiar position — back into the top half of the Big Ten standings. At 15-5 and 4-3 in conference play, the Badgers are now alone in sixth place, two games in the loss column behind 4-1 Illinois for first place.
In three consecutive losses against Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan, the Badgers shot an abysmal 15-for-70 from 3-point range (21.4 percent). The lowlight was a 3-for-28 performance in a 72-65 loss at home against the Hawkeyes.
But when Wisconsin absolutely needed a win to avoid a four-game skid at Purdue last Thursday, the Badgers responded. They hit nine 3-pointers and snapped the Boilermakers' 26-game home-court winning streak. Now, Wisconsin is safely projected as an at-large NCAA Tournament team once again.
"I think a lot of guys spent a lot of time in the gym, myself included," said Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz, who has made six 3s the past three games. "I think everybody has done that, spent a lot of extra hours after practice, before practice. We do that anyway, but it was just kind of a slump.
"Also I think we're moving quite a bit better without the basketball. We're making good cuts and getting a little bit more open shots, and that's why they're falling."
On Wednesday night, the Badgers opened the game by making three straight 3-pointers, forcing Northwestern coach Bill Carmody to call a timeout after just 86 seconds of play. Wisconsin then turned a tight 34-32 game at halftime into a blowout behind — you guessed it — the strength of its 3-point shooting.
Jordan Taylor drilled back-to-back 3s, then found Josh Gasser for a 3 on the left wing at the 14:59 mark of the second half. The lead ballooned from 41-38 to 50-38 in a span of 65 seconds and revealed just how devastating and deflating of an effect a good 3-point shooting team can have on an opponent.
"My pregame and halftime talks certainly weren't that effective," Carmody said. "We know it's a good shooting team and they've had some struggles a few games, but they're shooting 40 percent for the year, so we know they can shoot the ball."
Taylor, a preseason AP All-American, buried a season-high four 3-pointers and was one of four Badgers to score in double figures.
"We've got to forget about the slumps and have amnesia," Taylor said, "and turn it around as quick as you can because you can't stay down too long."
Wednesday's game was one that Wisconsin simply had to win. The Badgers rarely lose at home — they didn't lose once last season at the Kohl Center — but had already lost against Marquette and Iowa.
Northwestern (12-6, 2-4 Big Ten) played without guards JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio, who both were out with injuries. As a result, the Wildcats rode their starters for almost the entire game. Drew Crawford, John Shurna, and Dave Sobloewski each played at least 37 minutes.
But with Wisconsin burying its most 3s in nearly two months, the short-handed Wildcats didn't have a chance in the Kohl Center.
"It's a tough place to play," Carmody said. "I know everyone says that. They just played like a Wisconsin team that I've seen before."
That's a ringing endorsement Badgers fans anticipating another NCAA Tournament berth will be happy to hear.
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