MADISON, Wis. — Sometimes, sustained success creates expectations so absurdly high that most teams can’t possibly live up to such projections. And if any coach can understand, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is a good man with whom to start.
Izzo, the longest-tenured Big Ten coach at 19 years, has reached six Final Fours and won a national championship. He wins so often that more than a couple losses are considered bizarre. And he understands the same can be said for Wisconsin and coach Bo Ryan.
During his time, Izzo has seen Wisconsin’s success in the Ryan era up close. Izzo holds a .692 winning percentage in Big Ten games, yet he is just 11-14 (.440 winning percentage) against Ryan. So the idea the Badgers were no longer talented because of a recent three-game home losing streak was nonsense, Izzo said.
Ater Ryan beat Izzo again, during a heart-stopping 60-58 victory on Sunday at the Kohl Center, Izzo acknowledged as much.
"We didn’t execute well enough to win a big game on the road against a very good team," Izzo said. "Just because they lost a couple of home games, and that’s un-American in the Cheesehead State, don’t kid yourself. They’re a very good team."
Wisconsin escaped with a win that could significantly change the team’s postseason fortunes following a stretch of five conference losses in seven games (and the first three-game home losing streak ever under Ryan). UW has now beaten five teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top-25 — Florida (3), Michigan State (9), St. Louis (13), Iowa (17) and Virginia (20) — and should bounce back into the poll this week.
In order to get there, the Badgers needed to play defense on a new level. Earlier in Big Ten play, Wisconsin allowed at least 70 points in five consecutive games. The Badgers have not given up more than 65 points over the past five Big Ten games.
"We had to," Gasser said of finding an extra gear defensively on Sunday. "We had to playing against a team the caliber of Michigan State, how physical they are. You take a possession off, they’re going to make you pay for it. Especially on the glass. They’re so physical, so strong, athletic. If you don’t block them out and put a body on them, you’ve got no shot.
"We definitely had to bring a little extra energy, a little extra effort that way. But it’s not just against them. We’ve got to do it every game. Night in and night out is something we’ve got to continue to develop."
This season, Wisconsin is allowing 63.1 points per game, compared to 55.9 a year ago. The mark is good enough to rank third in the Big Ten — which is two spots lower than where UW usually ranks, Izzo noted.
"This is a good defensive team," Izzo said. "They haven’t maybe been Wisconsin good because Wisconsin’s been unbelievable defensively in the last 10 years. I would say, I hope this isn’t insulting, it’s not one of his best, which makes them probably in the top three of the league. Usually they’re one."
Ryan said he never has talked to players about winning or losing streaks, and he certainly didn’t start such a practice this season. But players recognized the importance of a solid performance against Michigan State (20-4), which is tied for the Big Ten lead at 9-2 with Michigan. Wisconsin (19-5) moved to 6-5 in the Big Ten to slide into a tie for fourth with Ohio State and keep alive chances of a first-round bye in the conference tournament next month.
For a team that began the season 16-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country with sky-high expectations, it certainly represents a step in the right direction. And in order to keep following that path, defensive execution will be paramount.
"I would say both teams defensively, that’s what we’ve both hung our hats on," Ryan said of Wisconsin and Michigan State. "It was hard getting an easy look. It was a hard fought game. (UW trainer) Henry (Perez-Guerra) was really busy doing a lot of bandaging. I don’t know if they were doing the same down at the other bench. Collisions and diving and reaching and trying to gain an advantage.
"There were a lot of good basketball skirmishes going on out there. Guys playing hard, trying to get it done. When you have two teams playing like that, they’ll feel it (Monday).
At least the Badgers can nurse their wounds while feeling a lot better about themselves once more.