Three months ago, a February game between Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin would have been appointment viewing, one of those late-season Big Ten Conference matchups that figured to have significant meaning in determining each team’s postseason plans.
Despite losing four seniors to graduation, the Badgers hadn’t finished outside the top four in the Big Ten race since the 2000-01 season. The Wildcats, meanwhile, had eight of their top 10 scorers returning from a team that earned the school’s first NCAA tournament bid.
Fast forward to Thursday night, when UW and Northwestern hooked up at the Kohl Center in a game between two of the conference’s many disappointing teams. Instead of a top-four finish, the prize for UW and Northwestern was positioning themselves to avoid a bottom-four finish and relegation to the who-cares Wednesday session in the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament a month from now in far-off Manhattan.
So which team has fallen farther this season?
UW’s 60-52 loss to Northwestern established that for the time being. The Badgers fell to 3-8 in the conference while the Wildcats won for the third time in four games, improving to 5-6.
“You look at our league, it’s so jumbled up right there in the middle,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “There’s a lot of teams vying for positioning and wins. In these last seven games, a lot of us are going to be playing each other and every game is going to be of ultimate importance. Tonight was a big game and one that our guys responded well to.”
The Badgers can’t say the same, despite beginning the week with the possibility of improving to 5-6 in the conference. With home games against Nebraska and Northwestern, they had a reasonable expectation of winning both and inching toward the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, where nine of the 14 teams have sub-.500 records in conference play.
Instead, the Badgers’ season-long inconsistency — fueled by injuries, inexperience and a lack of depth — did them in both times. In a 74-63 loss to Nebraska on Monday, they played very well for 30 minutes but couldn’t get out of their own way in the final 10. In losing to Northwestern, they dug an 18-1 hole at the start, couldn’t guard anyone in the first half and couldn’t buy a basket in the second.
Now they’ve lost four games in a row, seven of their past eight and are showing signs of physical and mental fatigue. People are wondering what, if anything, the Badgers can change to get back on track.
“I’m not really sure if there’s just one thing,” center Ethan Happ said. “It’s just tough. We’ve got to play a full 40 minutes. We haven’t found that in the last couple games, where we’ve played 40 minutes solidly on both ends. Shots might not go in, but we’ve got to be there mentally and on the defensive end, everything.”
There were signs against Northwestern that the losing is weighing on the Badgers and affecting their play during games. Unlike the Nebraska game, when they had no clue how to defeat the Cornhuskers’ 1-3-1 zone, the Badgers came out with a good plan against Northwestern’s 2-3 zone. They just didn’t execute it. They stationed Happ in the middle of the zone and tried to run the offense through him, but early turnovers and missed shots deflated them and led to their 18-1 deficit. It didn’t help that Northwestern drained some contested jump shots during that stretch.
After allowing the Wildcats to shoot 66.7 percent in the first half, the Badgers played defense with considerably more resolve in the second. But even though Northwestern was struggling to score, UW couldn’t close the gap because it shot only 29.4 percent in the half, including 3-for-15 from 3-point range.
“No one here is used to losing; that’s not what Wisconsin basketball is about and it’s not what it’s going to be about,” guard Brad Davison said. “It’s definitely frustrating. I think the mindset you have to have is use each game to try to improve, use each practice to try to improve and try not to get discouraged. You’ve got to keep the faith. You’ve got to have confidence. When you lose the faith and you get discouraged, that’s when it gets tough. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to keep working. We’re going to keep pushing, keep trying to improve. We’ve still got a lot of big opportunities in front of us and the Big Ten tournament.”
There were also signs that the Badgers are tiring physically, especially those who are playing heavy minutes. Multiple players had trouble finishing through contact at the rim against Northwestern and the Badgers couldn’t contain center Dererk Pardon inside.
One thing the Badgers know is they have to get better at doing the little things more consistently.
“They work extremely hard,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “As we’ve struggled to continue to grow and mature, this group has constantly come back the next day ready to go. I have not had to light a fire, any of that type of stuff. They have come ready to work and they understand there’s a lot of areas that we’ve got to mature and grow and get better at. I hope it bugs them. That tells me that they’re competitive and want to get better. It should bother them and I know it does.”
They’re the only ones who can do something about that.