I thought I could see this coming, especially with the AP defying the "how long has it been since you lost" rule, and ranking the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team #1 for the first time in school history. That was pretty wild. And while it will last until next Monday, in truth it's already gone, thanks to a nine-point loss at Michigan State on Tuesday night. Yick. Yea, Sparty students rush the Court and Izzo cries. Bizarre? Yes. A complement to our accomplishments this season? Yes. Still agitating as all get out? Oh hell, yes.
A brief note on our losses this year. Each game we've lost, a guard on the other team has attained the NBA Hang Time designation of "On Fire!" First, it was that free throw king on Mizzou State, then A.J. "it's my non-shooting hand that's broken" Ratliff. Then on Tuesday night it was the naked mole rat (anyone ever watch the ABC cartoon "Kim Possible"?) And particularly with Ratliff and Neitzel, it was them getting hot and making shot after shot down the stretch. As Bo likes to say, sometimes you play good defense, you contest the shot, and it still goes in, and there's not much you can do. That's what was happening down the stretch of those games. Also, all of UW losses this year have come in road games where we're playing on short rest--with only two days off between games, one of those days being a travel day. Since we're pretty deep and the players apparently did a good job of getting conditioned, I doubt there's much of a physical fatigue factor. But we definitely seem to be mentally tired, or at least less prepared than usual. And this makes sense. How much less time is UW able to spend evaluating the other team, studying their tendencies, having the scout team run the opposing team's sets and defenses? A lot less time. I think this has played a big factor in our losses. And if this is the case, it doesn't speak well for our potential success in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. So it's been a fatal combination for UW this season--opposing player gets red hot, little time to prep.
Now this is not to excuse UW's poor play against Sparty. We got owned on the glass in the first half (Sparty had a four offensive rebound possession), we looked meek offensively--settling for three-pointers again and again and not attacking the basket and drawing fouls-- and we let Sparty bully our players on the perimeter, preventing us from "swing"ing the ball around, the staple of our offense. Sparty plays very aggressively, and with the game being in East Lansing, a lot of rough play (them on us) went uncalled. But we were passive and didn't play tough. The result was a game where UW got outworked, especially on offense, often looking confused and abused. What kept us in this game was playing good, solid defense for the most part (an aside--is there anything more frustrating than playing 30 secounds worth of great defense, forcing a bad shot, and then letting the other team get the rebound?), and A-Tuck and Landry going hog wild on three's. The combination of MSU's best player getting hot (that rolling-around-the-rim three-pointer with a minute or two left was a backbreaker), and, predictably, UW's outside shooting falling off (how many three pointers did we miss in the last two minutes?), meant the end.
I guess this past game, and the Penn State game before it, are what is so exciting and nerve-wracking this season about the Badgers. They are a good team, no doubt about it. We almost always play good defense. And offensively, when the team is clicking well or certain players (like Butch against Pitt) are en feugo, we can beat anyone, and look good doing it. For example, I have never seen better team offense than what UW did against Penn State last Saturday. But unlike teams with loads of NBA talent (Flordia, OSU, North Carolina), victory, against almost any solid team, never seems inevitable. I suppose that's because we don't have many players who can consistently win their "individual match-ups" on a regular basis, if this were the NBA before they (sort of) started allowing zone defenses. I don't mean to disparage our team. We have a lot of good players. Some of them will become great, I think. (I have my eye on Hughes, Landry, and Bohannon.) But right now, we don't have many (any?) dominant players besides Alando. Maybe Flowers on defense? So we have to earn our victories. And when the other side outworks us, especially on defense, and their talent level is at all close to ours (Indiana and Sparty are probably around our level), we can definitely lose if things don't bounce our way. Like the naked mole rat's rim-job three pointer, for instance. But if we hustle, and prepare, and play together we can beat great, potentially more talented, teams. And this is what we've done this season, along with not slipping up against a bunch of other, not-so-great teams. It's been remarkable to watch. But it's harrowing, because you can never expect them to beat a good team. You might think it, but you can't be presumptous.