Nothing escapes Jordan Taylor's vision.
It could be a seam in a defense that he can attack to get to the basket, or a guard telegraphing a pass that he can steal during a game. It could also be a teammate's perfect form as he shoots jump shots every day in practice.
Taylor watches it all like a great hawk viewing a prairie from the gnarly branch of an old oak tree.
"It's all part of mental toughness," said Taylor, the sturdy 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard for the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team, who also puts great stock into listening to every piece of advice a coach or teammate offers him.
"It's almost like a fun classroom to be in," he adds as that smile that has lit up hundreds of rooms in his lifetime crosses his face. "I'm just trying to get better at making the right decisions. I still have a lot to learn in that area."
Taylor says that over and over when basketball is brought up. "I'm just trying to get better," is his constant refrain. "I still have a lot to learn."
Ask anyone connected with the UW program and they'll tell you the Bloomington, Minn., native is staying true to his word. His rapid improvement this season is a big reason why the No. 18 Badgers (15-4, 5-2 Big Ten) have stunned the experts by becoming a national power once again and jumping right into the Big Ten Conference regular-season title hunt.
Despite a mini-shooting slump over the past two games, Taylor heads into today's Big Ten game against Penn State (8-10, 0-6) at the Kohl Center as the team's fourth-leading scorer (8.7 points per game) and leading assist man (3.3 per game).
One of the strongest players on the team, Taylor has been the model of efficiency while leading the Big Ten and ranking fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.50).
In the process, Taylor has become the perfect backcourt complement to the power and grace of Trevon Hughes and the finesse of Jason Bohannon.
"In the last month and a half he has taken a huge jump," UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. "Part of it is, his shot is going in. He has some confidence now and is real comfortable with his role on the floor and what he's doing."
Listen and learn
UW coach Bo Ryan calls Taylor a bulldog defensively and loves his work ethic -- not just in games but every practice, when he's always watching and listening.
Taylor's been doing that for a long time. It dates back to his middle school days when he wandered the halls after school while waiting for his mom or dad -- both of whom are professionals working long hours -- to pick him up.
"So I got to know janitors and maintenance people," Taylor said. "I messed around with one of the janitor guys; I'd follow him around while dribbling the basketball. I got to be pretty good friends with him."
If there was an after-school blood bank, you'd find Taylor there. "I wasn't helping, I'd just hang out," he said with a smile. "I'd just be around messing around, joking around with people. ... From seventh to ninth grade, I had people actually tell me that they thought I lived at school because I'd never really leave."
Taylor didn't hate it. "It was my only option. I liked hanging around people," he said.
He's no different now that he's a college student. Trainer Henry Perez-Guerra always gives him a hard time for being the last one to leave the locker room after practice. "I like to sit around the locker room and hear what people have to say," Taylor said wryly.
Room to grow
Not everything Taylor has heard has been positive. When he was a 5-foot-6 ninth-grader, he heard he was too small to play Division I basketball. On a statewide message board he was once rated as the 14th best guard in the state. His dad egged him on and said, "Those people don't think you're very good."
"So I wanted to prove those people wrong," said Taylor, who led Benilde-St. Margaret to the Minnesota state Class AAA title in 2008 and was named Minnesota Mr. Basketball as a senior.
Now he wants to prove that he possesses a long-range jump shot that is as strong as his hard drives to the basket or that pull-up jumper he hits frequently from the paint.
After shooting 26 percent overall and 19.2 percent from 3-point range as a freshman, Taylor spent last spring and this fall pestering UW assistant coach Gary Close into helping him with his jump shot. He spent the summer playing pick-up games in Madison and the Twin Cities.
Close lauded Taylor's attitude. "He is a work in progress, just like everybody else on the team," he said. "A lot of times people see some great things and they expect it to be a straight shot up. This game doesn't work this way. You have to keep grinding away. But he's a tough-minded kid who will keep getting better."
Besides working with Close, Taylor paid attention to everything his teammates were doing, particularly the ones with the best jump shots.
"You look at guys like J-Bo, even Pop (Hughes) now, and Rob (Wilson) -- their shots always look the same every time they shoot it," said Taylor, who is making 39.1 percent of his shots overall and 26 percent of his 3-pointers this season. "That's one of the biggest things I work on; just try to stay consistent with your form, release and everything like that."
Taylor never stops looking for ways to get better.
"Just trying to get better," Taylor said before winking and adding, "and I have a long ways to go."