Even with the loss to Mississippi, was Wisconsin's season a success?
The Wisconsin offense, which is sometimes known to hibernate throughout the winter, turned up freezing cold in Friday’s shocking loss to No. 12 seeded Mississippi.
The Badgers shot 25 percent from the field, looked timid down the stretch and were unable to execute against a team more known for an arrogant sharpshooter than defensive prowess.
The result, while surprising given the seed differential, isn’t all that shocking when you consider how similarly inconsistent Wisconsin’s offense has been this year.
In the stunning win over Michigan on Feb. 9, the Badgers shot 41 percent on 10-of-24 from deep. But in their befuddling late-season loss to Michigan State, Wisconsin managed just 4-of-23 from beyond the arc.
The Badgers’ defense was tremendous all year long, but no amount of defensive pressure can knock down a three-point field goal.
Against Mississippi, Wisconsin shot 23 percent from outside, and Big Ten Coach of the Year Bo Ryan couldn’t do anything about it. He knew all season that his team had devolved into a three-point shooting team, capable of beating teams littered with NBA prospects or dropping games to low tier conference opponents.
Given their monumental highs this season followed by Friday’s devastating low, it’s fair to ask whether this season was a success.
There was no higher point this season than when the Badgers upset No. 3 Michigan at the Kohl Center on February 9.
Down 60-57 with three seconds left, Mike Bruesewitz inbounded the ball to Ben Brust, who was curling up the right side, dribbled once, then heaved a 40-foot prayer which hit nothing but net.
The game went to overtime where Brust continued his theatrics, draining a three-pointer from the right side, which ultimately proved the difference. That spawned this video of the Wisconsin players dancing to Ke$ha in the locker room, which, now that I think about it, was probably the team’s highest moment.
The Badgers also handed Indiana its first home loss of the season on January 15 with a shocking 64-59 win in Assembly Hall. The win, coupled with a Big Ten tournament victory over the Hoosiers, extended Bo Ryan’s streak to 12 straight games over Indiana.
Two other buzzer beaters underscored this Wisconsin team’s flair for the dramatic. Traevon Jackson hit a game-winning jumper from the right elbow against No. 12 Minnesota on January 6, and then he did it again on a game-winning three-pointer over Penn State in the regular season finale.
The Badgers had 20 wins heading into the final three-game stretch of the regular season. At 11-4 in the conference, Bo Ryan was well on his way to solidifying a top-four finish in the Big Ten, something he’s done an eye-popping 12-straight seasons.
But on Senior Night, with the Boilermakers in town, Wisconsin played an even more uninspired brand of basketball than it’s known for. It was out-hustled by a tougher Purdue team, which wanted to win much more than Wisconsin.
Badger starters shot 6-of-27 from deep, and the team scored just 20 points in the second half. The Badgers were also out-rebounded 36-26 and gave up 18 points off turnovers, an uncharacteristically high number for Bo Ryan teams.
Then, still in the thick of the conference title race, Wisconsin traveled to East Lansing, where it was promptly destroyed by Michigan State, 58-43. The Badgers shot 29 percent from the field, including 4-of-23 from the three-point line.
It took Jackson’s three-point buzzer beater in the regular season finale to save Wisconsin from going into the conference tournament riding a three-game losing streak.
The Badgers graduated former All-American point guard Jordan Taylor last year and were set to resume their offense with former shooting guard Josh Gasser as the floor leader.
Those plans were discarded after Gasser tore his ACL in the preseason.
Ryan converted sophomore Traevon Jackson, who averaged five minutes per game his freshman year, into the team’s starting point guard over the course of the nonconference season.
Jackson learned on the fly, and Wisconsin struggled, losing four of its first 10.
But with Jackson, junior shooting guard Ben Brust and three veteran big men, Ryan astutely navigated the Big Ten schedule. Wisconsin beat Illinois, Northwestern, Nebraska and handled Indiana for its early marquee victory. It split the regular season series with Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State, handing the Buckeyes a particularly crushing defeat in mid-February.
All told, Wisconsin wound up 12-6, tied for third place in the Big Ten. It was the 12th-straight year with a top-four finish.
In a year where it would’ve been understandable for the Badgers to finish below the top-four, Ryan did it again. That’s largely the reason the veteran earned conference Coach of the Year.
For a veteran squad, which isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, the Badgers typically place a ton of emphasis on their free throws.
Last year they shot nearly 74 percent from the line, the year before that they led the country with an 81.8 conversion rate.
For some reason, poor free throw shooting became a widespread epidemic with this team, hitting just 63 percent of their attempts.
In a four-point loss to Iowa, the Badgers shot 8-of-12 from the line. In a two-point loss to Michigan State, Wisconsin missed 11-of-18 free throws. Against Ohio State, Wisconsin somehow managed to not shoot a single free-throw attempt, which is the first time that’s ever happened in Bo Ryan’s career at Wisconsin.
The next game they attempted 42 in a win over Illinois, marking the highest total of the last two years.
In short, it is difficult to characterize what went on with the Badgers’ freebies, but it nonetheless became a storyline throughout the season. The poster boy for the issue became Ryan Evans, Wisconsin’s flat-topped senior. After shooting 72 percent from the line his junior season, Evans resorted to taking actual jump shots from the line, his percentage plummeting to 42 percent.
With the season-ending loss of Gasser, the burden of engineering the Badgers offense shifted to Traevon Jackson.
The son of former Ohio State legend Jim Jackson, the younger became an above-average game manager who developed a knack for taking and making big shots. Jackson doesn’t have overwhelming quickness, and his three-point shot isn’t pretty, but by the end of the season, he was averaging 27.6 minutes per game and getting his teammates in good position to score.
Given that he’s just a sophomore, Wisconsin’s backcourt looks to be in great shape come next season.
Freshman Sam Dekker came to Madison as one of the best recruits Bo Ryan had ever landed. Credit to Ryan, who let his 6’7’’ wing off a tight leash early on. Dekker had an argument to be the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year, but he ultimately lost out to Indiana’s Will Sheehey. The freshman reserve averaged 9.4 points per game and shot 48 percent from the field, including 40 percent from behind the three-point line. He showed a first-year fearlessness with impressive transition dunks and a number of timely three-pointers. He’s guaranteed to start next season.
The three senior starters Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans all improved markedly this year.
Bruesewitz was always a tenacious defender, while Evans developed an impressive post game and Jared Berggren became a defensive stopper in the back. Berggren averaged over two blocks per game.
Whether it was warranted or not is up for debate, but expectations were high regarding Wisconsin's potential postseason run. As the No. 5 seed in the West bracket, Wisconsin had a chance to advance in the wide-open region.
But the Badgers managed just seven points over the final 9:24 seconds against Ole Miss.
Marshall Henderson outscored the Badgers himself over that span with 11 points.
Wisconsin played good enough defense to advance, limiting the Rebels to just 38 percent shooting, but once again it was their inconsistent offense that couldn’t be counted on. The loss ended a streak of six-straight opening round wins for Wisconsin and broke a streak of two consecutive years making it to the Sweet 16.
Not much was expected of this Wisconsin team, even though by now, we should probably just trust Ryan’s methodical approach to the game.
But after proving that this year’s Badgers could hang with the country’s elite, expectations were heightened. It was easy to dismiss losses to Purdue and Iowa, since Wisconsin handled Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan, a combined five times.
Maybe the early exit should have been obvious, given the team’s nonconference struggles, but it seemed like Wisconsin’s defense could mitigate any athletic edge its opponents had. That wasn’t the case, and numerous careless turnovers and awful three-point shooting ultimately sealed this team’s fate.