It was Alumni Day for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program Sunday afternoon, and the former Badgers who showed up were full of smiles while being introduced at halftime.
Considering they probably spent much of the first half cringing, it was a much-needed respite for the group and the Kohl Center crowd.
The home team certainly didn’t provide much in the way of inspiration over the first 20 minutes, a stretch that sealed UW’s fate in an 83-72 loss to No. 20 Michigan that clinched the Badgers’ first losing season in Big Ten play since 1997-98.
Junior forward Mo Wagner scored 20 points for the Wolverines (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten), who jumped out to leads of 15-2 and 35-15 in the first half and had a 22-point cushion by the time UW was honoring its past at halftime.
It was the second consecutive putrid start at home for the Badgers (11-16, 4-10), who fell behind 18-1 in a 60-52 loss to Northwestern 10 days earlier.
“We came out aggressive,” Michigan senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdul-Rahkman said. “We came out hungry.”
UW, meanwhile, came out passive, indifferent and mistake-prone on both ends of the court. The Badgers’ lack of urgency was baffling on multiple fronts, starting with the fact the Northwestern game should have provided a valuable lesson about how difficult it is to climb out of big holes.
Motivation shouldn’t have been an issue, either. As poorly as this season has gone, here was a chance at a signature win against a ranked opponent after being 0-for-6 in that category entering the day.
Finally, it was a chance to build some actual momentum. UW, coming off a 78-69 win at Illinois on Thursday night, hasn’t won two games in a row since beating Indiana on Jan. 2 to extend its winning streak to five games.
“You play a good team game and you come in with the same mind-set,” UW sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl said of the team's state of mind after ending a five-game losing streak with the win at Illinois. “We just have to stick to the plan and execute.”
That didn’t happen. Michigan went 13 of 17 from the field, including 7 of 9 from 3-point range, over the opening 13 minutes, 28 seconds to build a 20-point lead.
Asked if he was surprised his team came out so flat, UW coach Greg Gard said he didn’t like that term and instead blamed the Badgers’ start on poor execution on both ends of the court.
UW’s defense, which has been inconsistent all season, allowed too many open looks and let Michigan’s shooters build confidence right out of the gates. Wolverines senior guard Duncan Robinson had 14 of his 16 points by halftime after going 4 of 5 from beyond the arc in the opening 20 minutes.
Gard was just as frustrated by UW’s struggles on offense. He knew the combination of Michigan’s scheme and talent was going to be a challenge for the Badgers, so they needed to match the Wolverines basket for basket until they got comfortable on the defensive end.
Instead, UW shot 36.0 percent from the field in the first half. According to Gard, the Badgers were 5-for-15 in the paint during that stretch.
“When you put that pressure back on your defense and you have a couple mistakes and now (they) get some confidence going, that has a snowball effect,” Gard said. “While we were trying to make sure we try to get the wraps on it defensively, we had to be able to convert when we have the ball point-blank. Missing open shots or missing contested shots from the perimeter, that’s one thing, but when we have it that deep and worked it inside, we’ve got to be able to finish inside because it’s a counter to what’s going on at the other end.”
Junior center Ethan Happ finished with 29 points for the Badgers, but even he admitted that season-high total needed some context.
“Looking at the stat sheet, I was 12-for-23 and I didn’t take a shot outside of the paint,” Happ said. “So that’s not good enough to win a ballgame.”
The Wolverines led 58-35 before the Badgers finally started showing some signs of life 8 minutes into the second half.
Happ scored five points during a 12-0 run that helped UW pull within 58-47 with 8:53 remaining in the game. Michigan, to its credit, did enough to make sure its lead didn’t drop below double digits until one final surge by the Badgers late in the game.
Redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford made a 3-pointer from the corner to cut UW’s deficit to 71-63 with 2:37 left, and the Badgers had a chance for a stop when Michigan sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson missed the front end of a bonus. But the Wolverines collected the offensive rebound and Abdur-Rahkman (15 points) made two free throws to push the lead back to 10.
“Proud of how they battled back,” Gard said, “but we’ve got to get better at how we start.”