Friday, January 27, 2012
TMA: Wisconsin does its best Wisconsin
By Eamonn Brennan
No. 25 Wisconsin 57, No. 17 Indiana 50: This Wisconsin season has been a bit strange. For one, the Badgers have lost three games at home, something they had done just 12 times in all of Bo Ryan's career before this season. Moreover, consider the strange polarity in the Badgers' per-possession makeup between the 2012 season and 2011:
Those numbers are from Ken Pomeroy, and they're a little tricky, because Wisconsin has given Ken's rankings system fits (something Mr. Pomeroy has addressed already). But in any case, you get the drift: Last year, Wisconsin was a decent defensive team that shone on offense. In 2012, Wisconsin is a pretty good offensive team that plays downright staunch defense.
Considering the similarities between this year's team and the 2011 version, that sea change is a little bit surprising. It's also awfully handy. If Wisconsin wasn't quite as good on the defensive end as it is this year -- and it has had its stinkers, as in the Marquette and Iowa losses -- it likely wouldn't be able to weather the storm against teams like Indiana, which gave an impressive effort at the Kohl Center in last night's 57-50 Badgers win. More importantly, it wouldn't be able to work with this still-surprising senior regression from Jordan Taylor.
Last season, Taylor was as efficient a point guard as we've seen in the past decade. He almost never turned the ball over. (Which he still doesn't do, really; ESPN's production staff flashed a stat showing Taylor as the NCAA's all-time career leader in assist-turnover ratio. Incredible.) He made shots at a much higher rate, particularly from beyond the arc. How many games did he win in 2011 by getting a screen on the perimeter, setting up his man with a little dribble move, and then elevating for a 3 over the top? Didn't it seem like that shot always went in?
This season, it isn't. Taylor's percentages are much more meager in 2012; he posted another so-so shooting night Thursday, going 5-of-14 from the field and 0-of-5 from 3. Before the season, if you would have said Taylor's efficiency would take this much of a dip, I would have told you the Badgers were going to be -- well, if not bad, then certainly mediocre. But because this team plays better defense without its former counterparts -- Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, whose departures have shifted the contours of this team more than any other in the past few years of Badgers hoops -- Wisconsin can withstand simply so-so outings from Taylor at home against a team like Indiana.
For all the legendary consistency of Bo Ryan's program -- slow pace, swing offense, this is how we do things, find guys that fit -- this is a truly different team this season. Not better. Not necessarily worse. Just ... different.
In the meantime, I thought Andy Katz's Indiana analysis on the ESPN2 postgame show was just about spot on: This was a tough game on the road against a team that had won four straight, in which Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo both dealt with foul trouble, and the Hoosiers still had a chance to win. Verdell Jones had a great first half scoring on the dribble, but that was never a sustainable route to score. Christian Watford posted another efficient scoring night. Zeller's foul trouble limited him, of course, but so too does Indiana's inability to enter the ball in the post with anything resembling authority. (It's like Indiana is so scared to commit a turnover they blush at any sign of post pressure. Just throw that man the ball, fellas. You'll be fine.)
No, they did not play well down the stretch. No, there were some calls that probably should have gone their way. No, Indiana coach Tom Crean probably shouldn't have kept Zeller out with his fourth foul from the five-minute mark all the way until the final 60 seconds. That was sort of baffling.
Still, for a team that seems to be so carelessly defined by narrative this season, this performance didn't quite fit. They were good on the road. They lost. Oh well. The sky is not falling, nor is Indiana "back," or whatever other terms you want to use to define this thing. It was just another Big Ten road game, in which a few things went Indiana's way, a bunch of things went Wisconsin's way, a few shots were made, a few shots were missed, you take your lumps, you move on. For Indiana, considering the past two weeks, the doubts about this still-young team's ability to win on the road, and its carelessness late in games -- well, the loss wasn't great. But it was hardly the worst-case scenario.