Bo Ryan's halftime speech Tuesday night did not involve threats or violence. Instead, the Wisconsin coach gave his team a refresher course on how to avoid repeating what it produced in the first 20 minutes against Indiana, and the essence of that message was: You know what you can do, so do it already.
And so the Badgers did, dynamiting a 10-point halftime deficit with 50 second-half points against Indiana en route to a 69-58 win. It was Wisconsin's sixth straight victory, and it advanced one of the season’s most up-and-down stories. The Badgers looked like a Final Four contender during their 16-0 start, a perplexing mishmash during a 1-5 skid and now again appear to be a legitimate threat to make it to Arlington in April. The particular comeback path Tuesday night, in fact, was a familiar one.
“Shots went in,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said after the game, in which the nation's 14th-ranked team shot 62 percent in the second half. “When the ball goes through the hoop, it makes a lot of things easier. People think it’s some crazy magic that happened, but no. We just made shots, we made some plays and didn’t really change anything system-wise. We just ran our plays, and it worked.”
It's also how Wisconsin worked its way out of the recent slump that took them from a No. 3 ranking to being out of the top 25 entirely. The Badgers have improved their perimeter defense as well, but the biggest reason for their rebirth is better shooting. And that prompts a question about their tournament chances: What happens if the shots don't fall?
In the six-game win streak, Wisconsin is shooting 46 percent overall and scoring 1.18 points per possession. In the five losses, Wisconsin shot 41.5 percent and scored 1.04 points per possession. That gap helps explain defeats of three points (at Indiana), seven points (vs. Michigan) and one point (vs. Ohio State). Wisconsin’s offense, which is the nation's sixth-most efficient according to kenpom.com, can machete through a bracket when it's in rhythm. But when matters get dodgy?
The Badgers have been solid but not elite defensively. They are 44th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. In the five losses, their opponents shot 51.5 percent overall and scored 1.14 points per possession. In the six-game win streak, opponents have shot 42.8 percent and scored 1.04 points per possession. That’s about a three-basket improvement, accounting for the margin in two of the six consecutive wins.
The bigger concern for the Badgers might be their perimeter defense. In Wisconsin’s five losses, opponents shot 45.8 percent from 3-point range and even during its current winning streak teams are shooting over 38 percent from deep. For the season, the Badgers rank next-to-last among the 12 teams in the Big Ten in 3-point defense. That will leave them vulnerable to a hot-shooting opponent in March. Maybe that’s true for most NCAA tournament teams, but this is not a question of whether Wisconsin will make the Big Dance but how long it will stay. At the moment, things look auspicious. But it also looks like the margin for error is narrow enough for doubt to seep in.