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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Saddle Up: What happened to Madison?

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semidaily preview of the night's best basketball action. It still doesn't understand why Stanford didn't just let Andrew Luck score the go-ahead touchdown. The guy was 26-of-30. He was unstoppable. And you give your season to a redshirt freshman kicker? Why?

No. 11 Michigan State at No. 19 Wisconsin, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Something truly strange is happening in Madison, Wis., this season: The Badgers are losing in the Kohl Center.

At most programs, a home loss here and there is no big deal. It happens, you know? But not at Wisconsin. In the "In a funk" section of today's King's Court, our own Jason King concisely summarized this strange turn of events:
Kohl Center: Wisconsin entered the 2011-12 campaign with a 155-12 record in its home gym under coach Bo Ryan. But midway through the season, the Badgers have already dropped two games at home. The first one, against Marquette, was understandable. But losing to a rebuilding Iowa team at the Kohl Center was a shocker.

See, I thought the home loss to Marquette -- just a few days after a really solid near-win at North Carolina -- was shocking. Wisconsin lost at home? What?! And then Iowa (the same Iowa that lost a home game 77-61 to the Campbell Fighting Camels, no less) came along and won in Madison. The word "shocker" feels like a huge understatement. That might be the most surprising upset of the season thus far.

What gives? Why is Wisconsin suddenly losing to an (apparently) bad Big Ten foe in the Kohl Center, just its seventh home conference loss since the Kohl Center opened in 1998? Surely there must be some tangible explanation for this, some method behind the mystery.

OK, probably not. The reason the Badgers have lost two home games this season is actually rather simple: It shot the ball poorly in both. Against Marquette, the Badgers' effective field goal percentage was a brutal 37.0. Against Iowa, it was ... 37.0. Wisconsin's offense is built on efficiency. The Badgers walk the ball up the court, poke and prod until the last few seconds of the shot clock, then find the best possible look. Usually, it's a good one. Usually, it goes in. When it doesn't, Wisconsin falls behind, and this offense isn't built to quickly erase deficits or go on much-needed second-half runs. It just isn't built that way.

Which is why tonight's home matchup with Michigan State could be rather fascinating. The Spartans are a very good defensive team, long and athletic and excellent at pressuring shooters. They don't have to force many turnovers to win, which is good because Wisconsin almost never turns the ball over. But the Spartans are excellent at forcing shooters into contested looks, rebounding that inevitable miss and turning that defensive stop into a score on the secondary break. Sophomore guard Keith Appling is especially thrilling in this role; few players in the country can defend like Appling, and few can transition from defense to fast-break scoring so quickly and effectively.

If Wisconsin doesn't find its shot against that brutal Spartans defense -- and that goes for Jordan Taylor, who still hasn't recovered from his early-season shooting slump, as well -- the Spartans are a prime candidate to hand Wisconsin its third home loss in four weeks. That's something you don't see every year. Or, for that matter, every decade. It would be a strange and unlikely phenomenon, a cosmic realignment of decidedly minor proportions. And it might just happen tonight.

Everywhere else: Connecticut has a really interesting road test at Seton Hall tonight; let's see if the surprising play of Pirates forward Herb Pope is enough to keep Seton Hall in this one. In the meantime, UConn freshman forward Andre Drummond has no idea who we're talking about: "I don't even know who [Pope] is," Drummond said after Monday's practice. "I'm not trying to be disrespectful. They said the name to me in practice, and I was like 'Wait, who's Herb Pope?'" To be fair, Pope was a highly touted prospect when Drummond was still in grade school, so let's cut him a break. ... The short, shallow and altogether offensively brilliant Missouri Tigers will try to extend their unbeaten record to 14-0 against Oklahoma in Columbia, Mo. ... Nebraska could be in for a tough night against an Ohio State team looking to rebound from Saturday's loss to Indiana. ... Louisville's post-Kentucky schedule isn't especially tough, but it will require solid road work tonight at St. John's. ... Florida hosts UAB. ... Harvard travels to Fordham. ... And after a huge win at Wichita State, Creighton returns to Omaha to face Drake (the school, not the sweater-loving hip-hop artist).