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Wisconsin can learn from NBA's Thunder

If Jordan Taylor can find a running mate next season, he'd be wise to learn from Russell Westbrook's experience.
If Jordan Taylor can find a running mate next season, he'd be wise to learn from Russell Westbrook's experience.

Whether you are an NBA fan or not, the playoffs are front and center on the talk radio circuit. A hot topic this week on shows like The Scott Van Pelt Show has been whether the Oklahoma City Thunder can survive with Russell Westbrook taking more shots than Kevin Durant.

Westbrook put up 98 shots in the first four games of OKC's series with Memphis, compared to Durant's 83 attempts. The explosive point guard hit less than 50% in each contest and has repeatedly forced shots instead of getting the ball to Durant.

Thinking back to Wisconsin's tournament run this past season, the similarities were painfully easy to see. Like the Thunder, the Badgers featured a breakout star at point guard, as well as a prolific 6'10" scorer of their own. Am I really comparing Jordan Taylor to the uber-athletic Westbrook and Jon Leuer to Kevin Durant, most lethal scorer in the league? Well, yeah, temporarily.

Taylor had a breakout junior season in which he scored over 20 ppg in Big Ten play. Yet in three NCAA tournament games, Taylor connected on only 27% of his shots and forced plenty of shots himself. The disgusted text messages flew fast and furiously during the first two rounds even as Wisconsin prevailed and Taylor was the hero of the Kansas State win.

Meanwhile, Leuer -- a player who can at least create his own clean look in almost any matchup -- went underutilized. The senior forward was significantly more accurate than Taylor in the postseason, even when you include his final 1-for-12 performance against Butler. Leuer, Wisconsin's leading scorer, took 17 fewer shots in the team's final four games, but was nearly unstoppable against Belmont and K-State when Taylor and UW made an effort to feed him.

Here's what I wrote after Leuer scored 17 second-half points to pull away from Belmont:

The Badgers went straight to Leuer down low for an easy jumper to start the second half and repeated the act four possessions later. The switch had been flipped.

And this after the Badgers beat the Wildcats:

Taylor added 12 points, but shooting-wise, it may have been his worst performance of the year. The junior made only 2-of-16 shots, many of which were not even close or ill-advised. Whether the season has worn him Taylor down or he is feeling a profound pressure to score in order to help his team, these performances are occurring more frequently it seems.

Even so, Wisconsin survived into the Sweet 16. Oklahoma City has managed nicely also. I love watching Westbrook play, but seeing a point guard repeatedly make poor decisions and ignore a wide-open Durant is frustrating.

It is not as if Westbrook cannot take over a game, though. In Monday's triple-overtime thriller, Westbrook scored 40 points. But it took him 33 shot attempts. And it's not that he was killing his team. On the contrary, Westbrook's aggressiveness was critical in tying the Western Conference semifinals at 2-2 the other night.

Likewise, we saw Taylor strap the team on his back several times as a junior with some phenomenal offensive performances. In fact, Taylor was most valuable offensive player in the country in 2010-11 according to some calculations.

The idea is not that Westbrook or Taylor hurt their team, but their teams' potential is much greater with more traditional offensive roles and distribution. Want evidence? On Wednesday night Westbrook took only 10 shots and assisted on four of Durant's seven buckets through three quarters as the Thunder blew past Memphis, 99-72, to take control of the series.

The pickings will be slimmer for Taylor as a senior without Leuer around. This season was certainly a learning experience for Taylor, by trial and error, as he tried to mix his new-found stardom with running a disciplined team. As Taylor inherits the responsibilities of being the team's go-to player, finding the right balance will be even more important since he will be surrounded by a host of youngsters.

Can you picture OKC without Durant? Westbrook would be shooting the Thunder in and out of games every night. One of Wisconsin's biggest challenges for next season will be avoiding that fate.