The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team got back to playing hard Saturday.
The winning? That will have to wait.
Facing an opponent that was every bit as desperate as it was, 14th-ranked UW dropped a 59-58 decision to 24th-ranked Ohio State in a tension-filled Big Ten Conference game at the Kohl Center, the one-time house of horrors that lately looks more like a hospital for ailing teams.
The loss was the fifth in six games and the third straight at home for UW, which hit the skids after opening with 16 victories in a row. Ohio State showed up having lost five of its previous six games after a 15-0 start, so the two former top-five teams had a lot in common, including frustrated players who felt the need to vent publicly in recent days.
“We didn’t want to just talk the talk, we’ve got to walk the walk,” UW forward Nigel Hayes said. “This game was better than some of the previous losses we had. We weren’t just giving up easy layups and it wasn’t like we weren’t playing hard or playing physical. It’s just sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. We just have to in games find ways to make the ball bounce our way.”
Finding a way to make it go through the hoop would be preferable. Indeed, the Badgers learned Saturday that simply playing hard won’t solve the issues that have surfaced since their dream start. They also have to be smart and disciplined, especially on defense but lately on offense, too.
The offense, which had carried the Badgers all season, deserted them for a second consecutive game. In a loss to Northwestern on Wednesday, it never showed up. Against Ohio State, it took the second half off. The common denominator is the 3-point shots stopped falling, but it also looks like some players are struggling in their roles or with the physical defense played in the Big Ten.
Only Hayes, a freshman, was consistently effective down the stretch against Ohio State, scoring 13 of UW’s 25 second-half points. Still, a group that once looked like coach Bo Ryan’s best offensive team failed to make a basket after center Frank Kaminsky scored on a putback with 6 minutes, 42 seconds left.
So what is the difference between the team that went 16-0 and the one that has gone 1-5?
“I would say the last two games it was basically the shots,” Ryan said. “There’s been some times defensively where guys were still learning roles, when to jump, when to stay, when to hedge. But these last two games ... I thought we had a great blend of inside-outside. But we have some guys who have some deficiencies and they show and other teams have exploited those. So the guys that it’s happening to have to get better, which is what we’re still trying to do.”
When they were winning game after game, the Badgers displayed a great chemistry. They were a cohesive, confident team.
After their lethargic performance against Northwestern, sophomore Sam Dekker, UW’s leading scorer, told reporters the team needed to be tougher and work harder on the court and do less complaining and finger-pointing off it. For the record, Dekker included himself in that criticism.
Asked Saturday if he liked the leadership on his young UW team, Ryan was less than enthusiastic.
“If you’re not getting it done, everybody wants to talk about leadership,” he said. “I think what I’m looking at is, I saw some guys hustling out there, I saw some guys banging on the glass. I saw Nigel just working. (He) has outworked everybody on the team, which is pretty obvious. And he does it without talking about it. Maybe that can be infectious.”
Even a blind man can see where that shot was aimed. But Ryan didn’t stop there. He took some measures Saturday that clearly were designed to spur greater effort and concentration among his players.
For one thing, he had a shorter leash on Dekker, Kaminsky and point guard Traevon Jackson. Dekker scored a season-low four points in a season-low 19 minutes. Jackson had more turnovers than assists for the fourth time in eight games and couldn’t get UW a good look when it had a chance to win at the end.
But if you think lineup changes are coming, you haven’t been watching Ryan for the past 13 seasons.
“If you take guys and move them out, what you’re saying is, it’s their fault,” he said. “I don’t do that. It’s all of us together. ... I’ve certainly seen a lot of times where guys can shake the lineup up by not playing guys as many minutes or certain guys don’t get the run that maybe they were getting, and that we’ve done a little bit of with some guys. I know it’s always easy to sit there and say, ‘Hey, just start three other guys.’ I understand. But the thing is, you still need those guys on board and you still need them playing hard, playing defense, rebounding.”
The Badgers did most of those things against Ohio State, but it wasn’t enough because they didn’t have the versatile, unselfish, productive offense they had a few weeks ago. The winning won’t start until they regain that.