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'Ugly,' efficient Wisconsin tries to shake off losing streak before meeting Minnesota

The normally staunch Wisconsin defense caved to Indiana's dribble penetration. The normally staunch Wisconsin defense caved to Indiana's dribble penetration last week. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Saying Wisconsin plays “ugly” is one of college basketball’s most commonly used clichés. The No. 9 Badgers are “hard to watch,” it is often said, because they play slow and they don’t score a ton of points. The problem with these criticisms is that they miss the part about Wisconsin being almost unfailingly efficient on both ends of the floor.

On defense in particular, the Badgers have ranked among the nation’s top 50 in points allowed per possession in all but two seasons dating to 2002-03 (i.e., as far back as Ken Pomeroy’s statistical database goes). Under coach Bo Ryan, defense has defined Wisconsin more than “ugliness” or low scoring outputs.

Over its last two games, the previously undefeated Badgers’ defense has slipped. Wisconsin gave up 75 points in 64 possessions in a road loss last week to Indiana and 77 points in 68 possessions in Saturday’s defeat to Michigan at the Kohl Center. The Hoosiers shot 58 percent on their 2’s and scored 52 points in the paint, while the Wolverines lit it up from three-point range, hitting 7-of-13 treys and shooting 55 percent from the field.

If the Badgers hope to end their slide Wednesday night at Minnesota, they will need to reestablish their defensive roots.

"The tradition of our defense and this program -- it's been a tough team and we need to go out there and be [tough] defensively every game," Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky said Monday.

Because Ryan’s track record coaching defense is so good -- and because Wisconsin held good offensive teams like No. 6 Florida (0.88 PPP) and No. 10 Iowa (1.01) in check earlier in the season -- it’s likely the Badgers’ defensive struggles over the past two games are an aberration, more a product of their opponents shooting well than their own shortcomings on that end of the floor.

The Hoosiers exploited Wisconsin on dribble penetration and got to the rim at ease, but the Badgers did well guarding the paint against Michigan. The Wolverines just hit a high percentage of their mid- and long-range shots -- 55 percent from inside the arc and 54 percent from outside it, to be specific. And if third scoring option Caris LeVert goes off for 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting and Nik Stauskas does things like this, well, playing good defense is hard.

“We took away the glass from them and we took away the drives to the rim and said, 'OK, you’re going to have to make tough twos,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said Saturday. “We didn’t really close out as fast as we should have because maybe in their minds they’re thinking, 'Well, we need to protect the driving lines, we let that get away from us last game.'”

The Gophers have scored 1.05 points per possession over their six Big Ten games, good for fifth in the conference, and they get out on the break. Richard Pitino’s team has scored 309 points on 266 transition possessions this season, a figure Synergy Sports rates as “excellent.” Junior Andre Hollins leads Minnesota in scoring at 16.2 points per game, while senior Austin Hollins has developed into one of the best perimeter defenders (and dunkers) in the Big Ten.

Perhaps the most encouraging on-court development for Minnesota this season has been the play of junior big man Elliott Eliason, whose 8.7 rebounds per game are trumped only by Indiana’s Noah Vonleh among Big Ten players. Eliason is also grabbing defensive rebounds and blocking shots at top-35 rates.

"He's playing with great confidence," Pitino said of Eliason last week. "Confidence is so big in this game."

Eliason, Andre and Austin Hollins and junior college point guard transfer Deandre Mathieu have pushed the Gophers (13-5, 3-3 Big Ten, 34 RPI) into contention for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

The last time Minnesota played at home, it beat No. 17 Ohio State, 63-53. The Buckeyes are in a terrible funk right now, so it’s hard to tell whether that was a “good” win, or simply a matter of catching the Buckeyes in the midst of a bad stretch. We should get a better idea Wednesday night, as beating Wisconsin would go down as the Gophers’ best win of the season to date.

Ryan is 16-5 against Minnesota and 6-4 at The Barn. He'll try to steer the Badgers away from what would be their first three-game losing streak since the 2011-12 season.

“We’ve got to bounce back,” Wisconsin junior guard Josh Gasser said Saturday.” It’s a long season, so two losses aren’t going to kill us, but at the same time we have to get better. That’s our main priority now.”

Said senior guard Ben Brust, “It’s a very humbling game for sure, but we have no time to feel sorry for ourselves because we’re (going) on the road, and I think everyone knows that it’s not easy to win road games in the Big Ten. It’s a good opportunity for us, I’ll tell you that much. Like Josh (Gasser) said, we’ve got to move forward and get after it.”

At 3-2, Wisconsin has fallen to fourth in the Big Ten standings – behind No. 3 Michigan State (7-0), No. 21 Michigan (5-0) and No. 10 Iowa (4-1) – but it should be able to make up some ground over the next couple of weeks and still secure a high NCAA Tournament seed. After facing Minnesota Wednesday night, the Badgers get Purdue (3-3) at Mackey Arena, followed by home meetings with Northwestern (3-4) and No. 17 Ohio State (2-4) and a trip to Illinois (2-4), all before a home showdown with the Spartans on Feb. 9.

That’s a manageable stretch on which the Badgers can capitalize.
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