MADISON, Wis. — An 11-point lead halfway through the second half should have been enough for Wisconsin basketball against Nebraska on Monday night. But in a season full of disappointment, the Badgers may have produced their most disappointing result given how the game finished. Nebraska battled back for a 74-63 victory at the Kohl Center, outscoring Wisconsin 30-8 to close the game.
Wisconsin is now 10-13 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten, with three consecutive losses. Here are three things we learned about Wisconsin from the Nebraska game.
Wisconsin uncharacteristically fell apart
If Wisconsin has a double-digit lead at the Kohl Center midway through the second half, it is usually good enough to finish the job. But nothing comes easily for this Wisconsin team. And once Nebraska coach Tim Miles moved to a 1-3-1 half-court trapping defense, Wisconsin collapsed. The Badgers led 55-44 with 9:59 remaining on Khalil Iverson’s dunk. In the span of 2½ minutes, Nebraska cut the deficit to 55-54. The Cornhuskers took the lead for good at 60-58 with 4:35 remaining on James Palmer Jr.’s layup.
“Defensively, I think we kind of let off the gas a little bit,” Ethan Happ said. “We played pretty well defensively for 30-ish minutes. Just got to execute all 40. And offensively, I think once they went zone, it threw some trouble for us. But it’s not like we haven’t seen zone before. We’ve just got to be better.”
Over the final 9:59, Wisconsin connected on only 2 of 13 field-goal attempts and committed 5 turnovers.
“I thought we were too tentative coming across the court with it,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. “I thought we took our time at times, even taking it across half court, instead of aggressively attacking it and playing more aggressively.
“I understand probably what was going through [point guard] Brad [Davison]’s mind that he didn’t want to turn it over and wanted to make good decisions. But still in those situations, we’ve got to be aggressive to put us in positions. And then you make the decisions from there. And then you’ve got to convert.”
Ethan Happ needs help
Wisconsin’s best player has had to play like an All-American every game. For the most part, Happ has delivered. But what good is having one great player when his teammates simply don’t demonstrate the confidence and consistency necessary to contribute?
Happ produced another solid game against Nebraska, particularly in the first half when he tallied 18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. He also made his first career 3-pointer. But no other Wisconsin player scored more than 3 points, as Wisconsin took a 32-30 halftime lead. Happ finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 blocks. As he has seen throughout the season, he faced constant double-teams when he touched the ball near the post.
Iverson added some scoring punch in the second half and finished with 13 points. Brevin Pritzl buried a couple of 3-pointers and tallied 9 points. But right now, Happ is the only player on the team averaging double figures in scoring during 10 Big Ten games this season. It hasn’t helped that Davison has been playing most of the season with one good arm.
This team as currently constructed isn’t very good
By now, this one has become plainly obvious to many Badgers fans who have watched the games. Without injured guards Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice, the back-court rotation is a mess. Davison has been forced to log heavy minutes at point guard, even though his more natural position is as an off-guard. But Wisconsin doesn’t have anybody else it can rely on to serve as a true point guard. When Davison isn’t bringing the ball up the court, it’s usually Iverson or Happ filling that role.
Wisconsin’s backup point guard is walk-on Walt McGrory, whom Gard isn’t ready to trust in key situations. McGrory played 2 minutes on the road against Purdue two weeks ago and turned the ball over twice. The only guard to come off the bench Monday was T.J. Schlundt, who made 1 of 4 3-point attempts for 3 points in 11 minutes. Wisconsin’s shooters haven’t shot the ball particularly well. The Badgers have made only 33.5 percent of their 3-point attempts.
The Badgers front court hasn’t provided much assistance, either. Alex Illikainen played 4 minutes off the bench, while Charles Thomas and Andy Van Vliet didn’t even enter the game. Aleem Ford, who has started 13 games this season, came off the bench against Nebraska and didn’t attempt a shot in 9 minutes. Gard said he believed former walk-on Aaron Moesch, who played 17 minutes, provided a better defensive matchup for Nebraska.
Wisconsin has been forced to play with a young, inexperienced roster that hasn’t faced the grind of a Big Ten season and doesn’t know how to close out games. Add it all up, and Wisconsin is in the midst of its worst season in 20 years — the last time the Badgers missed the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to be able to convert,” Gard said. “How it all played out, I’ll look through and see exactly what. Part of it’s personnel, as we know. That’s not going to change anytime soon, so we have to improve and make the best of the position we’re in.”