MADISON, Wis. -- Even at its best, Wisconsin hasn't been known for its shooting. Never once in the last 10 seasons has the team finished in the top 50 in effective field goal percentage; only once has it finished in the top 50 in two-point field goal percentage (48th, 2003).
But free throw shooting? Everybody remembers two seasons ago, when the Badgers nearly set the NCAA record for single-season free throw shooting percentage at 81.8 percent. Bo Ryan's teams haven't always been that good, but the last four seasons have all seen a top-60 national finish at the line.
Entering Tuesday's game, Wisconsin had hit just 62.3 percent of their free throws, 323rd of 347 Division I teams. Tuesday night against 13th-ranked Michigan State, the Badgers missed 11 of 18 attempts and fell, 49-47, at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin (13-6, 4-2 Big Ten) held Michigan State's dual-center (at least in the official lineup) tandem of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix in check -- the pair, averaging 18.8 points and 14.0 rebounds per game combined -- managed just four points on 2-for-7 field goal shooting and just eight rebounds.
But the Spartans (17-3, 6-1) found production from the guards. Keith Appling scored 19 points on 6-for-17 shooting (3-for-8 on threes, 4-for-4 from the line) and Branden Dawson scored 18 (7-for-14 shooting, 4-for-6 free throws) to supply 75.5 percent of the Michigan State points.
Despite the missed free throws and the barrage of points from Michigan State's backcourt, Wisconsin had an opportunity to send the game to overtime with three seconds left. Down by two, George Marshall attacked the rim off a timeout and drew a foul from Payne to get to the line, but the first free throw clanked off the iron. The second one missed everything and the Spartans were able to run out the clock on the subsequent inbound.
The Badgers won the turnover battle, took seven more field goals than the Spartans, took six more free throws and made four more three-pointers. They hauled in 16 offensive rebounds and matched Michigan State's game rebounding total at 35.
Michigan State's 49 points on 53 possessions -- an absolutely plodding game -- puts its offensive efficiency for the night at 92.5 points per 100 possessions, MSU's second-worst offensive performance of the year (the worst being Jan. 10th's 62-59 win over Iowa in 70 possessions).
"I thought defensively we were working our butts off," Ryan said after the game.
The Badgers could have made the free throw point moot with better shooting from the field, particularly in the second half. Wisconsin made just 16 of 54 field goals (29.6 percent) overall and a paltry 6 of 27 (22.2 percent) in the second half. Three-point shooting went particularly cold, as the Badgers made just two of 10 in the final 20 minutes.
Whereas the Michigan State front line was invisible on the offensive end, the Badgers simply couldn't break through the defense played by Nix and Payne. Jared Berggren only attempted five two-point shots of his 10 field goal attempts. His even split of twos to threes was shared by the team as a whole -- 27 of the Badgers' 54 field goal attempts came from three-point land.
The absence of Frank Kaminsky's 6-foot-11 frame was notable, as Payne and Nix each stand at least 6-foot-9. The Badgers gave Evan Anderson two minutes early in the second half, but he looked lost on the court and committed a turnover in one of the two offensive possessions he saw. At times in the second half, the Badgers ran a lineup with the 6-foot-6 Ryan Evans as the tallest man on the court.
"I felt like I was getting a good number of post touches in side, they were sinking, I would kick it out for some decent looks." Berggren said.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said his team "had four guys going down there like he was [Kareem Abdul-] Jabbar," particularly in the first half. Indeed, the Badgers took 17 three-pointers of 27 total field goals (62.9 percent) in the first half.
When asked if the share of three-point shots attempted alarmed him, Berggren answered in the affirmative.
"A couple of times we had drives to the rim and we settled for too many outside jumpers," Mike Bruesewitz said.
Inevitably, the story of the game comes back to the free throw line. The most efficient way to score in basketball is from the free throw line, and efficiency is the name of the Bo Ryan philosophy. Seven makes out of 18 attempts -- including a miss on the front end of a 1-and-1 from Berggren -- is the antithesis of efficiency.
But what is there for the coach to say?
"I can't shoot 'em," Ryan reminded the press corps following the game.
This year, you get the feeling, Wisconsin fans wish he could.