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Violence is out of the question

Gripes, observations and the state of the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team.

Kevin C. Cox

You can add another Bo Ryan classic to the greatest hits list, right up there along side "Deal with it."

"Violence is out of the question," Ryan said incredulously in the post-game press conference after the Michigan State game Tuesday night. He was asked about handling the shot clock ordeal that muddied the end of the overtime period. And Ryan had been pretty upset about the referees' decision, so more than anything his statement was a relief to the reporters in the room.

But it's also good advice to Badger fans faced with one of the most frustrating two-game losing streaks of the Ryan-era. Because slamming a fist into a wall is not going to fix anything, I am opting for silent reflection on what has happened beyond the box score in the last week.

1. Losing streaks

We are entering uncharted waters. Sort of. Never before under Bo Ryan had Wisconsin lost two games back-to-back at home. In fact, it has only happened once previously at the Kohl Center (Feb '97). As for Ryan's teams, 2009 is the only apt comparison to the current situation. In January of that year, the Badgers lost back-to-back overtime heartbreakers to Minnesota (home) and Iowa (road). Then they lost their next home game by one point to Purdue two games later as part of an eventual six-game slide.

Now, after witnessing Iowa's win at Minnesota, maybe the Hawkeyes turnaround from early-season non-conference doormat will be a big storyline in the next few months. And likewise, Michigan State leads the Big Ten at 3-0. The Spartans may be the team to beat, not Ohio State. Only time will tell. One thing is certain: with upcoming road games at Michigan and Purdue, UW's losing streak can easily balloon to four game if the Badgers don't right the ship.

2. Taylor awakens

Part of me is willing to stomach the Michigan State loss if it means getting the alpha dog Jordan Taylor back in return. Recently he was named a Cousy Award finalist again, purely on reputation. Up until this weekend, though, he hadn't shown any signs of the All-American he appeared to be last year. Taylor had a decent first half (8 pts, 3-6 FG, 4 rebs, 3 asts, 0 TOs) against Iowa, but struggled in crunch time along with the rest of the team.

The largest deficiency in Taylor's game is not the early season shooting slump. It is his inability to explode past defenders off the dribble, healthy or not. Against the length and agility of Michigan State, this was more evident than ever. However, after an agonizingly slow first half, Taylor got to work. He willed himself over, around and through MSU defenders, hitting 4-of-4 from the field (including a beautiful flying tip-in) and 5-of-6 from the free throw line in the final 10 minutes of regulation. He added a pair of freebies in overtime and found his deep stroke to pull his team within a waved-off Ryan Evans 3-pointer of sending the game to another overtime.

3. Ben Brust and shot selection (aka: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Wisconsin let the Iowa game get away because of its deplorable 3-point shooting (3-for-28), eerily reminiscent of the North Dakota State debacle six years ago. Things got slightly better against Michigan State, but not much (5-for-22). Ben Brust shot 1-of-13 behind the arc in the two losses; Jared Berggren -- UW's starting center mind you -- shot 1-of-11.

These stat lines are evidence of a larger, uglier trend in recent seasons. The Iowa game marked the fifth time this season that the Badgers attempted 25 or more 3-pointers in a game. Their record in such games is 3-2 overall, but really 1-2 against any team with a pulse (sorry Kennesaw State and UMKC, only the UNLV win counts in my book). Last year it happened eight times (6-2, 3-2 in "non-buy" games) and nine times during the 2009-10 season (4-5). That is 22 times in two-and-a-half seasons with a 8-9 record against non-buys (13-9 overall).

Guess how many times the Badgers shot 25+ threes in a game during all of the eight previous seasons under Ryan prior to 2009? 16 times (with an 11-5 record). Clearly the bombs away trend is a move in the wrong direction.

The Brust situation is interesting. He's clearly a fan of the cinema. It's been established that the kid runs as hot and as cold as anybody in the country. Remarkably, Brust has a longer leash as an inexperienced sophomore than guys like Trevon Hughes and Kam Taylor did as seniors. And Brust is not a good enough defender to explain it. Simply put, I believe Bo Ryan is inconsistent with his rotation. He is sticking with Brust because guys like Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz have not shown much offense this season and he desperately needs another scorer on the outside. The fact is this year's bench is one of the weakest in recent memory, consisting of a young, undersized gunner (Brust), a surprise true freshman center (Kaminsky) of whom nothing was expected, and an underachieving senior guard (Wilson) who has spent more time in Ryan's doghouse than any player I can remember.

My thought is Brust should reasonably expect to get four 3-point attempts, provided they are clean looks. If he's 0-4 at that point, it's just not happening. He should try to get something going towards the hoop first. Period.

4. Berggren's defense

I was surprised earlier in the year by Berggren's ability to defend behind the post and use his quickness to get around his man and poke away entry passes or steal them outright. Three games into the conference slate, Berggren still leads the team in steals (22) and blocked shots (25).

What I saw toward the end of the Michigan State game was perhaps the most impressive though. Back against the wall against a bitter rival in a game his offense was not flowing, Berggren came up with two huge blocks in the final two minutes on consecutive plays. The first came on a drive Keith Appling and the next one was a point blank stuff of Derrick Nix, who Berggren denied twice on the night. I believe it's Berggren's improvement on his footwork which moves this Wisconsin team from good to great defensively.

Unfortunately, the missing piece for Berggren is his below average rebounding. He may never be a great rebounder and I'll never understand it. Offensively, he is rebounding at a rate worse than Jon Leuer, which is not great. Leuer was at least a good defensive rebounder. On defense, Berggren's 15.6% rebounding rate puts him on par with a Marcus Landry or Mike Bruesewitz. The problem is Berggren is 6'10", not 6'6". That rate makes him the worst rebounding Badger pivot of the last eight years.

5. Stuff happens

You think Wisconsin has it bad? Take a look at the guys stealing all UW's football coaches: Pittsburgh. Everything going wrong for the Badgers right now is going worse for Pitt, the hoops program to which Wisconsin is most often compared.

The Panthers stink right now. On Thursday night, Jamie Dixon's crew extended it's losing streak to four games. The Panthers didn't lose to Iowa, though, they lost to DePaul. To remind you, the Blue Demons went 2-52 in the Big East over the past three seasons. Wisconsin has three home losses, two to Top 20 teams. Pitt's three home losses are to Long Beach State, Wagner (who's better than you think, but still...) and Cincinnati.

Wisconsin will make the tournament and finish in the upper half of the Big Ten. But they have some major work to do. And by work I mean win a couple of tough league games on the road. And by tough games, I mean games like Michigan, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State. Holding serve against the likes of Penn State, Nebraska, heck even Iowa are merely bare minimums.

Evans may have said it best after Tuesday's loss: "If we knew what was going to happen every time, it would be no fun."


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