Badgers let Indiana live in the paint in loss
MADISON, Wis. — Sometime around Will Sheehey’s third dunk of the first half Tuesday night, it became apparent the defensive product being put forth from Wisconsin was not what everyone had grown accustomed to seeing this season.
Certainly, this Badgers team reached 16-0 and No. 3 in the country based largely on the strength of an unusually explosive offense. But in the process, Wisconsin had not exactly abandoned its defensive principles, which force opponents into tough shots away from the basket.
And then, Indiana scored 52 points in the paint — several on dunks and uncontested layups — in a 75-72 upset of Wisconsin inside Assembly Hall, calling into question the team’s focus and execution. Students stormed the court, and the Badgers were dragged back down to earth, bringing the best start to a season in program history to an end.
Though Wisconsin went cold for a second-half stretch on offense, pinpointing the reason for the defeat was not difficult.
"They just got so many easy buckets in the paint," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said before Thursday’s practice. "They got to the lane anytime they wanted to and they were able to get some easy buckets off that. That’s pretty unacceptable the way we handle things. You try to make things tough on opponents. You try to make them not get to the bucket. We gave up so many dunks and layups. That’s not what we had planned at all. We’ve just got to get better."
Wisconsin (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) will need to get a lot better if it hopes to upend Michigan (12-4, 4-0) and keep pace in the race for a conference championship. The teams meet at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Kohl Center, and the Badgers will try to respond from their first loss of the season.
Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard noted Wisconsin took two charges early in Tuesday’s game. But the team’s aggressiveness quickly faded, and players instead became tentative.
"At times, we did let people get by," Gard said. "Other times, it’s not just the guy on the ball. We’ve got to rotate better to help. There were times on film where we were just standing, watching the ball be dribbled to the rim."
In particular, one of the areas in which Wisconsin struggled was handling Indiana’s dribble handoff exchanges. Players did not have an explanation as to why so many communication breakdowns took place.
"That’s usually something we’re good at," Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson said. "We can switch everything in terms of that, especially with our guards. We were a little late. They took advantage of it. Credit to them. That’s something they attacked."
For an idea as to how unusual it is for Wisconsin to allow 52 points in the paint — its season-high — consider that the Badgers had surrendered an average of 29.6 points in the paint per game before Tuesday. UW gave up at least 40 points in the paint in four of its first five games of the season, with the worst performance being 46 points from North Dakota. But the Badgers did not allow more than 36 points in the paint over the next 11 games.
They held West Virginia to 12 on Nov. 27, a defensive season-low, and allowed just 18 to Milwaukee two weeks later. In the Badgers’ first three Big Ten games, they gave up slightly more than 30 points per game in the paint.
"It’s just positioning," Gard said. "It’s attention to detail all the time. It’s focus. Not one specific thing and not one specific player. As I went through the film yesterday, everybody had situations where they were not in the right place or did not rotate or sometimes rotated too soon, sometimes rotated too high and created a gap. They’ll bounce back. I’m not concerned about how they’ll respond. This is a pretty hungry group."
Like Gard, players did not sound particularly worried about coming back from a poor defensive performance. Of course, only time will tell whether they back up their words on the court and play the type of basketball most Badgers fans have grown to appreciate.
"We’ve won plenty of games," Gasser said. "We’ve beaten a lot of good teams so far. There’s no reason why one loss should change that at all. We’re still a really good team. We didn’t play well and almost came out with a win. So you’ve got to look at the positives that way."
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