Once upon a time, the Wisconsin basketball team found itself with an 8-8 record in mid-January. Badger fans weren't sure what they had on their hands that year. A recent coaching change, many unproven players and several embarrassing early season losses loomed large.
Sitting at 1-2 in Big Ten play, the Badgers needed a spark. And they found it on a Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan, when a combination of hot second-half shooting and taking care of the ball helped a plucky Wisconsin team escape with a 64-63 victory over Tom Izzo's Spartans.
Ending MSU's vaunted 53-game winning streak would become a source of pride for Badger fans for years to come. At the time, our country was still recovering from the September 11 attacks, the Euro has just started circulating across the Atlantic, and no one knew who the Kardashians were. The year was 2002.
In other words, it was a long time ago. Things have changed. Most alarmingly, a bit of pride had escaped from the program this season, something which came to a head after Wisconsin's 70-65 loss to Northwestern on Tuesday.
"Some guys have to do some soul-searching. Find out why they play the game and what they want out of this," explained junior forward Nigel Hayes. "I said in the locker room that it has come to a point where you have to be embarrassed to walk out there on that court now ... You represent yourself first, your teammates, your family, the Wisconsin program. The people who have played here before, we're letting them down."
Like Bo Ryan 14 years ago, it's up to a new head coach, Greg Gard, to instill in his team a healthy self-respect that demands respect from opponents. Nothing accomplishes that quite like winning. Unfortunately this Wisconsin team is not as good as that 2001-02 team featuring Devin Harris, Mike Wilkinson, Kirk Penney and two seniors (Charlie Wills and Travon Davis) who had career years.
The other problem? The Michigan State team which Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4 Big Ten) faces on Sunday is better than the one that stumbled to a 19-12 overall record in Ryan's first season. Led by a young backcourt of Marcus Taylor and Chris Hill, Michigan State was still feared after three-straight Final Four appearances, but wouldn't recover its winning chemistry for a few years yet.
Following back-to-back Final Four seasons of its own, it is difficult to find a perfect parallel to the situation this year's Wisconsin team is in. Three-game conference losing streaks were rare, but not unheard of, under Ryan. Being four games under .500 would be unprecedented though.
The last time time UW was in this position was 2009 when, coming off a loss at Northwestern, the Badgers snapped a six-game January skid against a good Illinois team. They did it with hot three-point shooting, limited fouls and fewer turnovers. That same formula has held true whenever Wisconsin has snapped a previous three-game losing streak, whether it be in 2014, 2012 or 2006. The Badgers caught quality teams at the right time and held a distinct edge in at least two of those three categories.
Rewatching the narrow loss to Maryland last night, the missed opportunities were endless for Wisconsin. Open threes by Jordan Hill, Zak Showalter, Charlie Thomas, and Alex Illikainen would have taken a lead and blown the roof off the Kohl Center had they gone down.
It was more of the same against the Wildcats on Tuesday, when the ball didn't seem to bounce UW's way. Committing 21 fouls and missing 14 three-pointers usually cannot overcome that.
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After another pronounced defeat at the hands of Iowa on Thursday, the Spartans (16-2, 3-2) are a team in need of regaining its luster also.
No team was playing better than Izzo's bunch to start the season, as Michigan State ascended to No. 1 in the land. But then Player of the Year frontrunner Denzel Valentine got hurt. The Spartans survived Oakland in overtime and beat a pair of terrible Big Ten teams before Valentine returned in a partial capacity two games ago.
Iowa forced Michigan State into 32 turnovers and 7-of-34 (20.5%) three-point shooting in two games.
While he played 37 minutes against the Hawkeyes, Valentine clearly isn't his old self yet. And until he gets right, MSU could still be ripe for the picking.
The numbers say Wisconsin does a little bit better than Michigan State at not sending opponents to the free throw line and the Spartans have shown a weakness in taking care of the ball. And even though Wisconsin is turning the ball over themselves at a much higher clip than Bo Ryan teams, the Badgers have been much better this season about creating turnovers -- mostly due to the quick hands of Showalter and Ethan Happ. At 18.6 turnovers per 100 possessions, it's a much higher rate than MSU and Wisconsin's highest rate since the heyday of Alando Tucker, Kammron Taylor and Michael Flowers.
Michigan State is clearly the better shooting team from every location on the court though. Senior Bryn Forbes leads the perimeter attack, hitting 47.7 percent of his three-pointers (51-for-107), while four other Spartans are shooting over 35 percent from downtown.
It doesn't stop there however, as Izzo is using a wide range of big men-- particularly Matt Costello and 6'10 freshman Deyonta Davis -- to get the job done inside as well.
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That is a steep hill to climb indeed.
If it wasn't a tough task, winning one game wouldn't be enough to turn around a season in limbo. Just like in Ryan's first season, most people won't expect that turnaround to start against Michigan State.
The young Badgers must get back to taking care of the ball at an elite level and moving their feet on defense. The trick is finding which guys will step up in that area.
Gard's rotational use of the freshmen has been interesting. Illikainen has earned a secure spot in the rotation with his ability to stretch defenses, but it's come at the expense of Thomas and Vitto Brown, who have turned into complete non-factors since Ryan retired. Thomas and Khalil Iverson have taken turns logging DNPs over the last three games, so it's no surprise the stronghold UW had been establishing on the offensive glass this season has waned during conference play.
And yes, the shots must fall.