It had been 16 years since the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program won two Big Ten Conference games while scoring fewer than 50 points.
The Badgers haven’t even reached the halfway point in league play this season and already have matched that total.
The latest slugfest came Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center, where UW grinded out a 45-44 victory over No. 12 Minnesota.
The ice-cold Badgers shot 37 percent from the field and 50 percent from the free throw line but still won because they played great defense and won the rebounding battle.
A day later, associate head coach Greg Gard used the words “fight and scrap and claw” to describe how the Badgers have had to overcome a sluggish offense at times this season.
“It’s how this team has to win right now,” Gard said Sunday as the Badgers (14-6, 5-2 Big Ten) prepared for a game Tuesday night at No. 14 Ohio State (15-4, 5-2).
“We have to make it kind of a spit-wad contest and fire back and forth and slug it out with teams, and hopefully we can get the lid off (the basket) a little bit and get higher-quality shots and the ball will go in.”
UW is shooting 40.2 percent from the field and a league-worst 51.9 percent from the line in Big Ten play, yet the Badgers find themselves just one game out of first place.
Combine Saturday’s win with a 47-41 victory at Nebraska on Jan. 6 and the Badgers have accomplished a feat — if you want to call it that — not seen around these parts since Dick Bennett (and before him, Harold “Bud” Foster) was UW’s coach.
During the 1996-97 season, the Badgers won two league games despite failing to reach 50 points in either one, beating Penn State 49-45 and Iowa 49-48. The last time it happened prior to that was 1944-45.
It’s tough to imagine these Badgers remaining in the hunt for a Big Ten title with a struggling offense. Of course, that’s the glass-is-half-empty outlook.
“That’s definitely one way of looking at it, or you can look at it the other way,” said UW senior forward Jared Berggren, mindful of the fact a sluggish offense cost the Badgers in a 49-47 home loss to No. 13 Michigan State last week.
“We’re winning games when we’re shooting the ball pretty horribly. When we get those things clicking, we can be a dangerous team.”
The bad news for the Badgers is nobody on the team is scoring consistently.
UW has gone three consecutive games without one of its starters scoring more than 10 points.
Berggren, UW’s leading scorer, hasn’t reached double figures in four consecutive games. Evans, UW’s second-leading scorer, has gone 8-for-29 from the field in the past three games.
“How would you like to be predicting our team this year,” UW coach Bo Ryan said after the Minnesota victory.
That unpredictable nature has left Ryan with some difficult decisions to make on lineups, particularly late in games.
On the final offensive possession against Michigan State last Tuesday, Ryan had redshirt freshman point guard George Marshall and junior guard Ben Brust on the floor with a frontcourt that included Berggren, Evans and senior Mike Bruesewitz.
Four days later against Minnesota, UW’s lineup on its critical final possession included sophomore Traevon Jackson instead of Marshall and freshman Sam Dekker instead of Evans.
“It’s definitely a gut feeling,” Ryan said Saturday. “I’ve been coaching for over 40 years with that. It’s the same thing … ‘All right, this is what this guy has been doing and here we go.’ It’s never changed.”
Some fans have been clamoring for more Dekker and less Evans, but Ryan is in a tough spot with how he handles playing time for those two players.
Dekker has provided a spark on offense but has been prone to lapses on the defensive end.
Evans, on the other hand, is a good defender and rebounder but has been inefficient for the most part on the offensive end. Evans’ 219 field goal attempts are the most on the team — Brust is next with 185 — but he’s tied for second-to-last among the top eight players in the rotation with a 41.1 field goal percentage.
Gard didn’t mention any names when he discussed some of UW’s bad habits on offense.
“I think what we see is when we really start sharing the basketball and (moving) without it, then we have a tendency to have the ball go in because we end up getting easier shots,” Gard said. “We’ve taken some tough shots at times and maybe dribbled a little bit too much sometimes.”
Gard listed four ways the Badgers could become more efficient: make the extra pass, touch the post more often, be more aggressive on the offensive glass and make free throws.
Until UW improves in those areas, it’s going to have to continue to win low-scoring grinders.
“You don’t go cold on defense,” Berggren said. “That’s just a mindset; that’s just mental toughness and determination. So those are things you can do every night no matter how the ball is bouncing. We’ll work our way out of our shooting slumps.”