The inexperienced University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has been enrolled in the school of hard knocks this season, and nowhere has that been more evident than when the Badgers leave the supportive surroundings of the Kohl Center.
Entering Monday night’s home game against surprising Nebraska, UW had a 9-3 record at the Kohl Center compared to 1-9 away from home.
Of course, that record was aided and abetted by non-conference home games against mid-major opponents, but there is no question the Badgers have played better at home than on the road.
In a nutshell, they’ve shot considerably better and defended somewhat better at home than they have elsewhere.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned is road games, it’s a whole different animal than home games,” freshman guard Brad Davison said recently. “That’s something that I didn’t really realize coming into college basketball. But it’s huge. It makes it a lot of fun, it makes it really challenging. It’s just something that as we go, we’ll get better at.
“I think home games are games you have to win and road games are huge opportunities.”
Basically, that made UW’s home game Monday night against Nebraska a game it had to win.
Indeed, after dropping five of its previous six Big Ten Conference games, with all five losses coming on the road, the Badgers’ only hopes of sneaking out of the lower reaches of the Big Ten Conference standings this season rested on their ability to win at home, where they historically are close to unbeatable and play six of their last nine regular-season games.
Unfortunately, no place is safe for this UW team these days, not even the Kohl Center.
And no lead is safe, either.
After starting out both halves playing like they did in many of their previous home games, the Badgers faltered down the stretch and dropped a 74-63 decision to the Cornhuskers, a loss that is a kick in the teeth for a team that isn’t used to frittering away 11-point leads late in the second half at the Kohl Center.
“We usually don’t lose at home,” senior forward Aaron Moesch said. “We don’t expect to lose any game, whether it be home or away ... but definitely at home.
“It’s something we take pride in is defending our home court. So it’s not expected, obviously.”
It’s all uphill from here for the Badgers. Nebraska’s 8-4 Big Ten record makes it one of the conference’s surprise teams, but this was a game UW had in hand and should have won.
Instead, missed free throws and an inability to solve Nebraska’s trapping 1-3-1 zone defense in the final 10 minutes dropped the Badgers to 3-7 in the Big Ten and left them in danger of having UW’s first losing record in the conference since they went 3-13 in the 1997-98 season.
Going into Monday night’s game, UW was shooting 49.8 percent overall and 40.0 percent from 3-point range at home compared to 40.7 percent overall and 25.1 percent from 3 on road.
Not surprisingly, it had scored 16.9 fewer points per game on the road than it had at home.
Defensively, the Badgers had allowed 64.7 points per game at home compared to 71.5 on the road.
For the first 30 minutes Monday night, those patterns held up. UW was knocking down 3-point shots, spreading Nebraska’s defense and center Ethan Happ was having a field day inside. The Badgers hovered around the upper 40s in shooting percentage and were right about 40 percent from 3-point range.
In the final 10 minutes, though, UW did something it seldom does at home. It became tentative and lost its way.
Holding a comfortable 55-44 lead after a monster dunk by junior forward Khalil Iverson, UW let Nebraska go on a 10-0 run, including three layups by hard-driving junior guard James Palmer Jr. Palmer finished with 28 points and is averaging 25.2 in his past six games, but UW had generally held him in check for 30 minutes.
At the same time the Badgers relaxed their guard on defense, the Cornhuskers switched to an aggressive 1-3-1 zone.
That’s when the Badgers looked like they were playing on the road, scoring only eight points in the final 10 minutes.
“We’ve got to be better than that,” coach Greg Gard said. “Some of it’s due to guys playing a lot of minutes. Sometimes fatigue causes those things to happen. But defensively, Palmer I thought did what he wanted at certain points, specifically when they needed it.
“Either they were drawing a foul from us or he was able to get to the rim. ... That was probably (the biggest thing) from my standpoint, understanding that the ball will go in at times and there’s times it’s not going to, but defensively for us to be so good and then to have our offense impact how we were tuned in defensively is disappointing.”
Perhaps the Badgers relaxed, figuring the Cornhuskers would surrender after they were down by double digits, just like so many opponents have done in the past at the Kohl Center.
But Nebraska didn’t and now UW’s season is in desperate straits.
“Just to see how we played that first 30 minutes, that’s how we should play all the time,” Moesch said. “The last 10 minutes is obviously how we shouldn’t play. If we put a complete game together, we’re walking out of here in a lot different mood.”
UW usually does that at home. Not anymore.