What We've Learned From Wisconsin's Last Two Losses

:) - Mike McGinnis

Putting the Badgers' recent struggles into perspective.

A week ago, Wisconsin stood 16-0, were atop the Big Ten and were #3 in the country. Today, they hold a 16-2 record after losing two straight to Indiana and Michigan, and are currently 9th in the country. Now as much as I'd like to cook up some #hot #sports #takes and panic and call for Bo Ryan to be fired, that's not what this team needs. Let's keep the #takes nice and room temperature, and calmly see what we know about this Badger team after their rough week.

Defense could become an issue.

On the surface, it may seem like a waste of time to gripe about Wisconsin's defense. They have such a notorious reputation for defensive prowess, and this year, some of the numbers agree. They're 33rd in the country in Defensive Efficiency, and are allowing an eFG of 45.8%. In addition, they lead the country in Free Throw Rate (FTRate), so they're not allowing their opponents to get to the charity stripe with regularity. While all these are true, the Indiana and Michigan losses prove that the Badgers have some work to do on defense.

It's interesting to juxtapose the Badgers' #1 rank in FTRate to the Indiana loss. While the Hoosiers only took 10 foul shots, they scored 52 of their 72 points inside the paint. Most of those points came off wide-open dunks and layups, and happened because Wisconsin wasn't even in position to alter their drives and force them to take foul shots. Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell knifed through the porous Wisconsin defense, and constantly found open looks at the basket. As conference play picks up, and the Badgers encounter other quick and aggressive guards, their perimeter defense has to improve. Indiana gave the rest of the country a blueprint on how to score against this Wisconsin defense, and you know the rest of the Big Ten paid attention.

It's a hallmark of Wisconsin defense to not force turnovers. In fact, in the past four years, the highest they've placed in the country in Turnover % has been 278th. This season, they're right on track, coming in with a Turnover % of 16.2, good for 301st in the country. That's a schematic dilemma, and one that most Badger fans are okay with. Their defensive success is predicated on playing conservative, and not wildly going after steals and loose balls. But Indiana only turned the ball over 9 times against the Badgers. In their two losses before that, they had 15 turnovers against Michigan State, and 23(!) turnovers against Illinois. When they play a team that takes such poor care of the ball, the Badgers have to capitalize.

The Michigan loss is a little simpler. The Wolverines could not miss their jumpers. The Badgers did a good job of keeping them out of the paint, and only allowed 9 layups or dunks. But Michigan made them pay, as they had lots of room to operate and knock down jumpers. Leaving shooters open is bad against any team, but it can't be done against a team of sharpshooters like Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. Michigan used screens effectively, and took the Badger guards way out of position. Michigan deserves all the credit in the world for their solid shooting, but Wisconsin can't let that happen again.

Be nice to Traevon Jackson.

Last season, I was a card-carrying Trae Jackson hater. And honestly, his struggles merited a lot of those critiques. But look at his stats from last year compared to this year.

Year ORtg eFG% TS% Assist Rate Turnover Rate FTRate
2014 106.8 47.4 53.2 26.6 18.7 51.3
2013 90.4 42.0 46.8 20.6 25.2 30.1

That is clear evidence of improvement in Jackson's offensive game. He's shooting at a higher percentage. He's finding his teammates for assists much more, and is turning the ball over much less. The most impressive development has been his FTRate. Last season, he would often dribble aimlessly for too long, then jack up a bad shot. This year, he's more targeted on offense, and knows when to attack the basket and get to the line.

Jackson had the best game of his career against Indiana, putting up 21 points on 9-11 shooting, including 3-5 from behind the arc. While his defense on Ferrell left much to be desired, he deserves tons of credit for keeping the Badgers in that game throughout the second half. He didn't look so hot against Michigan, only scoring 7 points on 3-11 shooting. If that's a "bad" Trae Jackson game, that's fine by me. He had 5 assists, all for either layups or threes, and only turned the ball over twice. Last year, a "bad" Trae Jackson game would consist of at least 6 turnovers, poor shooting, and an entirely halted offense.

Every time Jackson makes a misstep, the Grateful Red student section grumbles. One guy behind me kept talking about how "worthless" Jackson is to the team. Maybe last year, those critiques made sense. Not this year. Jackson's holistic offensive improvements have been huge for the success of the team in general, and have helped to turn the Badgers into a formidable offensive threat. So be nice to him.

They'll be just fine.

Indiana and Michigan are two exceptionally talented teams that have underachieved so far this season. That doesn't change the fact that guys like Yogi Ferrell and Nik Stauskas are among the best in the conference at their respective positions. Both of those teams were due to put it all together for a big win, just like the Badgers were due to struggle. That's okay. The Big Ten is treacherous, and will be impossible to exit unscathed.

They face a huge game against Minnesota on Wednesday, which will speak volumes about this team. If they win, then they've proved they figured it out, and can ride the easy schedule of Purdue and Northwestern into a home matchup with Ohio State on February 1. If they lose, it's not the end of the world, but 3 conference losses in a row is a tough habit to break. If the Hollins brothers play like Ferrell and Stauskas and light up the Badger defense, then we have a problem. Their defensive issues would have to become front and center.

Even if that happens, they will figure it out. This team is experienced and understands the grueling process of conference play. Thankfully, it's a long season, and no Big Ten team looks to run away with the conference title. Come February, Wisconsin has the talent to contend will for a conference crown, no matter how many times they may struggle on the way.

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