The Wisconsin Badgers fell short in their Big 10 tournament opener, dropping a 65-57 game to the Ohio State Buckeyes, placing significant questions on a potential appearance in the NCAA tournament, which seems unlikely at the moment.
This game wasn't your regular close bout for the Badgers, however, as the No. 12 seed was down by as much as 22 points before mounting an improbable comeback, ultimately falling short, despite a four-point deficit with a minute remaining.
What led the Badgers to such a deficit that they couldn’t overcome? Physicality and aggressiveness.
Wisconsin was significantly out-matched on those aspects early in the game, consistently missing close shots, while allowing Ohio State to reach their soft spots, leading to a 36-18 lead at halftime.
Following the game, forward Tyler Wahl acknowledged that the offensive woes led to the lack of physicality on defense, which placed a toll on the Badgers that they couldn’t overcome.
“I feel like seeing those shots not go in definitely played on us, and it affected our defense. They were super aggressive,” Wahl said. “We were not sound on defense by the start of it, and from the shots not going in, we just dug ourselves in a huge hole, and it was hard to come back from that.”
Essegian agreed with Wahl’s sentiment, inferring the Badgers’ weren’t as prepared for the moment, which is an area of improvement for their next opportunity.
“You could see it. There was a lot of guys,” Essegian said. “Everyone just seemed a little tense. I feel like that’s something we’ve just got to prepare and be ready for the next game. Honestly, we’ve just got to be ready for the next time.”
Head coach Greg Gard felt that today’s game was a different phenomenon for his players, as he had seen different attitudes than the team was accustomed to during tough moments.
“I thought we looked really hesitant. I thought we looked — just some looks on some guys faces that I haven’t seen in terms of,” Gard said. “I think the biggest thing was just be more aggressive on both ends of the floor.”
A big issue in regards to physicality? Center Steven Crowl, who just couldn't finish offensively, developing some tunnel vision after a few misses, which led to a couple of turnovers, which is uncharacteristic of the big man.
After a strong 21-point performance against Minnesota, where Crowl consistently looked to be aggressive for himself and his teammates, the Wisconsin center looked completely off his game on Wednesday, which Gard noticed.
“I thought he looked heavy-legged at times. I thought he couldn’t finish and they also went small with [Eugene] Brown. [Felix] Okpara was on the bench at times. And Gilmore was giving us a boost,” Gard said.
The Badgers didn’t attack the paint in their normal way, which altered their offensive gameplan that is normally predicated on performance from the inside players.
“I just thought we weren’t aggressive. We weren’t asserting. We weren’t attacking the paint like we have at times,” Gard said. “We’ve watched [Crowl’s] growth and development, and one of the big jumps he’s got to make is he’s got to be assertive and aggressive and try to — I sometimes tell him he’s too unselfish. He’s always looking to pass instead of trying to go score. So that’s part of his maturity and growth.”
When the Badgers did attack and find a rhythm down low, they began to find offensive success, primarily via Tyler Wahl.
Essegian acknowledged how opening up the game inside led to some more continuity offensively, as the Badgers went on an 11-2 run after Tyler Wahl spearheaded an 8-0 run by showcasing aggressiveness inside the paint.
“We were able to get some more stuff going inside in the paint. I felt like that helped us a lot in the second half getting us going a little bit, especially when the three-ball is not falling,” Essegian said.
Too little, too late. That’s been a theme for the Badgers this season, who have been accustomed to some slow starts and stretches, and try to compensate for them too late, ultimately ending in losses.
While Wisconsin was able to establish some aggressiveness defensively in the second half when their backups entered the game, forcing some turnovers, the significant lead required the Badgers to be perfect down the stretch, which didn't happen.
“In the second half, we [were more aggressive]. I thought McGee gave us a boost by doing some of that,” Gard said. “Jordan Davis did that. Gilmore was more active, and we were more assertive in the second half and kind of got them on their heels, much like they did to us in the first half.”
The lack of aggressiveness and physicality wasn't just on the offensive end, however; the woes translated to the defensive end, which were very notable in Ohio State’s 36-point first half.
“I thought we weren’t physical enough, part of it. When you allow a team to shoot 68 percent, that obviously tells you,” Gard said. “Also, at times through the half, we had no fouls. We went pretty deep into the half without fouling. That told me that we’re not physical enough, we’re not up in the ball enough. We didn’t stop dribble penetration on a couple drives to the rim.”
That appeared to be the case, as Wisconsin allowed Ohio State to dictate the pace with their offense, leading to several open jumpers off pick-and-roll actions from the guards, as well as some nice post-up fadeaways from Justice Sueing, which fueled the Buckeyes’ confidence.
Now, Wisconsin awaits the selection committee on Selection Sunday, where they’ll hope for the unlikely chance that their name is called for an at-large bid.
But, for now, their season is effectively over, and they’ll enter the offseason with an urge to add depth to a growing roster.