Big Ten play may have exposed Badgers’ greatest flaw
MADISON, Wis. — Bo Ryan compared it to plugging a hole on defense. Try to take away shots at the rim, try to run the opponent off the 3-point line, and you’re still going to give up something.
That something on Saturday against Michigan was an array of lane-line jump shots off a simple ball screen. Some were difficult fadeaways in traffic. Most, however, were wide-open, so-easy-it-could-be-practice jumpers as defenders sagged underneath or were late fighting over screens.
Given the consistent breakdowns, it wasn’t all that surprising that Michigan escaped with a 77-70 victory against No. 3 Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. But considering the Badgers’ traditionally stifling defensive capabilities, the result was surprising. And it may have exposed the team’s greatest flaw as Big Ten play heats up.
"I know the weaknesses," said Ryan, the Badgers’ 13th-year coach. "And other people will find out eventually. The thing is you plug one hole. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a football game. Your defense gave up X number of points and then you fix that, and then the offense. Some of these guys have to fight though some of this."
What, exactly, do players need to fight through?
"To be able to concentrate the whole time out there on the reads," Ryan said. "What changes are being made, who we’re going over on. That’s why I like smart players. Sometimes we’re getting it. Sometimes it’s getting away from us."
Wisconsin’s defensive performance continued a troubling trend. Just five days earlier, the Badgers surrendered a season-high 52 points in the paint during a 75-72 loss at Indiana. Now, Wisconsin (16-2, 3-2 Big Ten) finds itself on a two-game losing streak, two full games behind Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten race. The Badgers also have allowed at least 70 points in four consecutive games.
On Saturday, Michigan made 29 of 53 shots from the field (54.7 percent), primarily on the strength of those ball-screen jumpers. Twice on consecutive possessions early in the first half, Glenn Robinson III ran Sam Dekker off a screen and buried jump shots, the second of which prompted Ryan to yell at Dekker on the floor.
Michigan coach John Beilein ran a designed play for Robinson out of halftime off a ball screen. He buried the shot to give the Wolverines a 45-38 lead.
"They were giving us that open 15-foot jump shot," Robinson III said. "They were kind of collapsing back. We’ve been working on that in practice throughout the week, and I thought we all did a great job of knocking down that shot."
Robinson wasn’t the only player for Michigan (13-4, 5-0) to take advantage. So did Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin off nearly identical situations.
"We didn’t get up in their grill enough on the jump shots," Ryan said, "and we didn’t get them to take tougher ones."
Ryan pointed out last year’s team, for all of its offensive struggles, knew how to play tough defense because of a senior-laden frontcourt with Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans. But all three of those starters are gone now.
What’s left is a team that can score plenty — the Badgers have tallied at least 70 points in nine straight games for the first time in 21 years. But Wisconsin is still learning the intricacies of Ryan’s defensive system, even in game 18 of the season.
"We just needed to keep being more physical on them," said Badgers guard Josh Gasser, the team’s defensive stopper. "I think we were a little soft on them in a couple of those screening situations early in the game. That really hurt us."
Added Dekker: "We were a little bit embarrassed there when they took it to us a little bit in the first half and the beginning of the second half. We didn’t respond well to what they did. We tried to fight back there. But when you put yourself in a hole like that, it’s tough to come back."
Despite the defensive breakdowns, Wisconsin still was in position to win late in the game thanks to a 14-2 run that cut a 13-point deficit down to 68-67. But when it mattered most, the Badgers couldn’t come up with a defensive stop on a spectacular step-back 3-pointer from Stauskas over freshman forward Nigel Hayes with 48.1 seconds remaining. The shot gave Michigan a 71-67 lead and helped seal the Wolverines’ first victory in Madison since 1999 — snapping a streak of 11 consecutive losses there.
Wisconsin must now travel to face rival Minnesota, which defeated No. 11 Ohio State on Thursday. And just when it seemed as though the Badgers had all the answers, undefeated and on top of the world, serious questions are beginning to emerge.
"It’s definitely a different taste in our mouths coming out and losing a few times here," Gasser said. "We’ve got to see what we’re made of here. We’ve got to bounce back. It’s a long season. Two losses isn’t going to kill us, but at the same time, we’ve got to get better. That’s our main priority now."
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