Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Wisconsin's reminder: We're still here
By Eamonn Brennan
Never doubt Wisconsin.
Why? Here's a brief and totally incomplete list of things that have happened in the Big Ten since 2001-02, Bo Ryan's first season as the basketball coach at Wisconsin:
Ohio State has gone from annual sub-.500 seasons to Greg Oden, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger.
Bill Self coached at Illinois, then left for Kansas. In 2004-05, the Illini went 29-0 before losing their final regular-season game. This summer, Illinois fired Bruce Weber.
Matt Painter rebuilt Purdue from a 9-19 first season to the consistent Robbie Hummel-led contender of recent seasons.
Michigan has been 10-22 (2007-08) and a Big Ten regular-season co-champion (2011-12).
Indiana has gone to a national title game (2002), won six games in a single season (2008-09), fired two coaches -- one of which, Kelvin Sampson, was let go for making too many phone calls -- and begun a season ranked No. 1 overall (2012-13).
The point is, a lot of things can happen to a conference in a decade. Still, in all that turmoil, amid all those waxes and wanes and firings and hirings, there is one thing that has never happened: Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten.
This, perhaps, was going to be the season. Wisconsin graduated star Jordan Taylor last spring; junior point guard Josh Gasser tore his ACL in October. The Badgers lost four nonconference games, including a home loss to Virginia, and the 2012-13 Big Ten would be better and more brutal than ever before.
After the Badgers' 64-59 win at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday night, you can lose the thought of Wisconsin having anything resembling a "down" season. And you can repeat the phrase until it hums like a mantra.
Never doubt Wisconsin.
Ryan's uber-consistent success goes beyond mere winning or annual placement in the Big Ten table. It is also a defining characteristic of his coaching style at UW, where he has long since established a system, exclusively recruited primarily less-heralded players who fit into it and kept most of them on campus until they're seniors. The Badgers play grinding basketball -- they are frequently one of the slowest teams in the country -- and they never turn the ball over, they defend and they rebound.
That's the precise formula that upset the Hoosiers in front of their raucous 17,000 fans Tuesday night. Averaging 70.8 possessions per game, IU is one of the fastest teams in the Big Ten. On Tuesday, the Badgers held that number to 59. The Hoosiers scored just a point per trip; IU entered the game averaging 1.21. And Wisconsin's careful ball control and ability to play physically got the Badgers enough buckets down the stretch to prevent the Hoosiers from coming all the way back in the second half, when the biggest win of Wisconsin's season -- and we need to find a better word for this kind of extreme understatement -- hung in the balance.
The first half was tight and hard fought, with both sides trading the lead. Cody Zeller played by far the best half of basketball he (and maybe any other player) has had all season. He finished the half 8-of-8 from the field for 18 points, dominating the matchup with Wisconsin center Jared Berggren, who couldn't stay in front of the preseason player of the year when Zeller faced up and attacked the rim. But the rest of the Hoosiers, typically so lethal at home, struggled, and IU went into halftime with just a 32-31 lead.
By the 12:13 mark of the second half, Wisconsin built a 47-39 lead thanks to back-to-back Sam Dekker and Mike Bruesewitz 3s. The first came against Indiana's zone, which was ineffective and passive all night; the second came on a very long, late-clock heave, the product of suddenly aggressive man-to-man defense from IU. The Hoosiers didn't play much zone the rest of the night, and they clawed and hacked and harassed Wisconsin as much as possible. They got close -- at the 4:43 mark, IU guard Yogi Ferrell made a 3 to cut the lead to just one, the product of a seven-minute Badgers field goal drought.
But Ryan's teams are frequently among the best in the country at preserving leads, precisely because they don't turn the ball over. This season's team ranks No. 1 in the country in turnover rate -- no team in America coughs it up on fewer of its possessions. So even when the Badgers couldn't make shots, and even when their customary swing offense was being pushed farther and farther away from the hoop, they didn't give IU the steals and run-outs with which it can so quickly eviscerate teams at home. And when the shots finally started falling again -- Ryan Evans made a desperation turnaround jumper with 3:06 left, and Traevon Jackson followed it with an ice-cold 15-foot pull-up -- the Badgers had enough to hold on.
That is, after all, what they do. They slow the game down and craft the tempo to their liking. They play great defense (especially in transition), they rebound the ball on their own end and they make every offensive possession a 35-second fight. Usually, eventually, they wear you down.
Does that mean Wisconsin -- now the last unbeaten team in Big Ten play -- is a conference title contender? Maybe. Is it possible this was just an upset, much like we get from so many college basketball games on a nightly basis? Sure. Is it wrong to say IU, which played near-perfect basketball for 10 minutes Saturday but nearly blew a 23-point lead in the second half, has a lot of work to do in its own right? Of course not. It's clear that Wisconsin has improved in major ways since November and even December, when it lost 60-50 at in-state rival Marquette.
Are we absolutely, positively, 100 percent certain Wisconsin's win at No. 2 Indiana means the Badgers will keep that quiet, never-worse-than-fourth regular-season Big Ten streak alive this season, despite all the obvious impediments? Well, no.
But come on. It's Wisconsin. If there's one thing we've learned in the past 11 years of Big Ten basketball, it's that you never doubt Wisconsin.