A few turnovers and missed shots in the lane contributed to the University of Wisconsin's early demise against Michigan Sunday, but make no mistake, the real culprit was the Badgers' inability to defend in the manner to which we've become accustomed.
In a season that has become a cold slap in the face for one of the nation's most consistent men's basketball programs, the decline of UW's defense has been the No. 1 reason for its fall into the Big Ten Conference's second division. The game against the Wolverines was yet another reminder that the backbone of the Badgers' program, its team-oriented, half-court defense, has been the biggest casualty of this year's acute shortage of experienced, battle-tested players.
Sunday, Michigan made six of its first eight shots in racing to a 15-2 lead, sank 13 of its first 17 shots − including 7-for-9 from 3-point range − en route to a 35-15 advantage and coasted to an 83-72 victory over UW at the Kohl Center. Though the Badgers battled back gamely to get within seven late in the game, they suffered their 10th loss in 14 Big Ten games, guaranteeing the program's first losing conference record since 1997-98.
The game was painfully reminiscent of UW's previous home game, when it watched Northwestern sink eight of its first nine shots en route to an 18-1 advantage that the Badgers could never quite overcome. They eventually buckled down on defense in both games, but by then it was too late. Michigan's high-powered offense, in particular, made them pay for their sins on defense.
No team in the Big Ten relies on the 3-point shot more than Michigan, but the Wolverines had been mired in a long-distance slump, hitting only 25.3 percent from 3-point range over their previous three games. Michigan coach John Beilein said afterward he was confident the Wolverines had enough good shooters that the problem would correct itself, which proved to be the case as they sank several 3s from NBA distance. But UW's defense should get an assist as the Wolverines rediscovered their shooting stroke during a first half in which they shot 65.4 percent.
"First off, we gave up too many 3s," UW center Ethan Happ said. "When they start off 7-for-9 or whatever it was, that opens a lot of other stuff up for them. (When) we have to go out and defend them deeper at the 3-point line, that opens up more stuff at the rim and then drive-and-kick. We've just got to do a better job of starting."
Actually, UW's defense has struggled to live up to the program's lofty standards at various times all season, not just at the start of games. The Badgers appeared to be making strides in several recent games as players learned the rules of a complex defense designed to crowd 3-point shooters and protect the rim by always providing help, but Michigan's unique, hard-to-defend offense, which gives even experienced teams trouble, was simply too much for them.
"We've been inconsistent, that's the biggest thing," UW coach Greg Gard said. "As much as we drill it, as much as we show it on film, the best teacher I've found is they've got to go through the experience in games and it showed today. That was my fear because of having coached against them in the past. You have to be very disciplined in your rule-following. Because if you don't, that's what happens. You end up with guys that are wide open or you're late recovering or you drag two with the ball, a variety of things."
If you really think about it, what has happened to UW's defense isn't totally unexpected. Since coach Bo Ryan's first season in 2001-02 and continuing under Gard, UW has played man-to-man defense with hard-and-fast rules that every player must learn, understand and, most of all, execute. And everyone has to do it every single time or the whole defense breaks down.
It takes years to perfect, but since UW usually fields an experienced team, the defense has largely remained the same from year to year. After allowing opponents to shoot 45.6 percent from the field in Ryan's first year, the Badgers never allowed opponents to shoot better than 43.9 percent in a season right up through last season, when opponents shot only 41.2 percent.
After Michigan blazed away at a 56-percent clip Sunday, UW is allowing opponents to shoot a Big Ten-worst 46.4 percent for the season. Effort doesn't seem to be nearly as much of an issue as execution. But on a team that routinely has three freshmen on the floor, mistakes are bound to happen, which has led to stretches of poor defense in many games.
"I would say whenever that kind of thing happens it comes down to focus and just executing our plan and sticking to our rules every time," UW guard Brevin Pritzl said. "The rules are in place to help us succeed. When we deviate from them, it doesn't work out for us."
Until the players start playing by the rules, it's not going to work out for UW, either.
"We haven't been as consistent as we need to be and we will be," Gard said. "I don't know when we'll get there. We've shown signs of it at times, but obviously today not enough against a team like this."
Until the Badgers start consistently playing the kind of defense they're known for, it doesn't really matter who the other team is.