"What do I have to do to play here?"
Taylor was then a lightly recruited point guard from St. Louis Park, Minn., who'd driven down to see a football game and hoped to make a positive impression on the Badgers' coaching staff. Gard was under the impression Taylor was merely asking about what he needed to do to play Division I basketball anywhere. The coach began to say to meet the standards of D-I point-guard play, Taylor would need to improve his shooting (he wasn't much of a marksman), his ball handling and his decision-making (which were just OK) -- at which point Taylor interrupted.
"Coach, you don't understand," he said. "What do I have to do to play here, at Wisconsin? I want to play at Wisconsin."
The Badgers had yet to offer Taylor a scholarship. The staff loved his personality -- they thought he was a soundly built leader who understood the big picture about being a college student and a point guard -- but they wanted to be sure his skill set would catch up with his moxie.
They mulled it over for the rest of Taylor's sophomore season at Benilde-St. Margaret's School. And the entire summer after that. Colleges weren't exactly banging down his doors -- he ended up as a three-star prospect -- and UW finally offered him in the fall of his junior year. There was little fanfare when he committed. Gard just said that he and coach Bo Ryan believed that if Taylor put in the work, he had a chance to be a good player.
* * *
We're always searching for turning points in games of this magnitude -- No. 1 Ohio State in its toughest road environment of the year, in a place where the 13th-ranked Badgers were 149-11 under Bo Ryan -- and usually those changes in momentum can be pinned on a dagger shot, a statement dunk, or a costly foul. Here, on Saturday, the game's first swing came on a mere substitution. Down 10-6 with 14:06 left in the first half, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta inserted his freshman point guard, Aaron Craft, into the lineup in place of senior power forward Dallas Lauderdale.
Taylor, who'd made clutch shots in an overtime win at Iowa on Wednesday, and scored 30 against Michigan State six days ago, appeared in control of the game early. He drilled a couple of jumpers -- a two and a three -- in the face of OSU's William Buford, and the Badgers, who came into the game with the most efficient offense in all of college basketball (at 1.22 points per possession), were off to a solid start, scoring 1.25 PPP on their first eight possessions.
Craft has gained a bit of a reputation during the Buckeyes' 11-0 run through the Big Ten. He has driven the likes of Illinois' Demetri McCamey, Purdue's E'Twaun Moore and Penn State's Talor Battle mad with his defense, and was second in the league in steals with 41. "Aaron is like the secret service," teammate Jared Sullinger said. "He could guard the President."
Craft proceeded to lock down Taylor, who missed his next two three-pointers, committed a turnover -- something that he only does an absurd 1.2 times per game in conference play -- and only helped the Badgers put up three points in their next eight trips down the floor. UW only scored 0.842 PPP the rest of the half. They stood around, they took bad shots with the clock winding down; in Taylor's words, they "stagnated." Craft was the catalyst in taking the Badgers out of their flow.
The score was 28-26 in Ohio State's favor at halftime, and then got much worse. Craft, who was in the second half's starting five, assisted on four of the Buckeyes' first six baskets -- once to Sullinger and thrice to Buford -- as they surged to a 40-30 lead. With 13:21 left, they had extended it to 47-32.
What had the makings of a historic afternoon in Madison was falling apart. UW had some circumstantial things on its side: It had beaten No. 1 Ohio State in football, about a mile away at Camp Randall, in October; it was 1-18 all-time in basketball against No. 1 teams, but that one win had come against the Jerry Lucas-John Havlicek (and Bobby Knight) Buckeyes team in 1962. The coach who engineered that upset, John Erickson, was recognized on the court before the game as an "honorary captain." The scoreboard showed sepia-toned footage of the upset from the old UW Fieldhouse, and then a message, "Let's Take Down #1 Again."
There was a spirited, sold-out crowd ready to see it happen, and a pack of national-media buzzards who traveled to Madison to see it happen. But you do not fall behind the nation's best basketball team by 15 points in the second half and win. At best, the Badgers could hope to become a historical footnote, as one of the 40 teams the Buckeyes beat on their way to an undefeated season.
* * *
Taylor did not practice on Thursday after the Badgers returned from Iowa City, Iowa, where he'd played 44 of 45 minutes. But he made a point to clarify to the media that he'd been ordered to sit out by the sports medicine staff, because he didn't want anyone to think he wasn't willing to work. "I never ask for a day off," he said. Some credit, then, must be given to UW's sports medicine staff for what transpired here in the second half.
Just as some of us were formulating the conclusion that Taylor might be exhausted, that Craft (and his fresher legs) were getting the best of the Badgers' floor general, he came to life. Taylor ended the 19-6 OSU run with a floater in the paint, then drilled back-to-back three-pointers to make it 47-40, then hit Mike Bruesewitz with a bounce pass on the break, setting up two free throws that made it 47-42. Taylor hit another shot in the lane to cut the lead to three, and assisted on a Josh Gasser three-pointer that tied the game at 47-47 with 9:46 left.
Ryan had made the strong tactical move to switch a ball-screen-heavy offense in the second half, but it was Taylor who willed UW back in the game. Over the course of the next four-and-a-half minutes, he added two more threes, two more free throws and two more assists to give the Badgers a 62-55 lead. They'd gone on an improbable, 30-8 second-half run to stun a team that had yet to wilt in a close game.
Usually, on the quotesheets following an Ohio State game, an opposing coach or player will mention that they have never faced anyone like Sullinger, the 6-foot-9, highly-skilled beast of a freshman who has averaged 18 points and 10.3 rebounds and placed himself in contention for national player of the year awards. Unless the Buckeyes fold in the next few weeks, he'll run away with Big Ten Player of the Year honors. But it was Sullinger, standing dejected outside his locker room on Saturday afternoon, who would say the following about a Wisconsin junior who has been so underappreciated that he was somehow omitted from the Bob Cousy Award's list of 10 finalists:
"We've never faced somebody like Jordan Taylor. He's a big, physical guard who can shoot, who can move the ball, who can do whatever you want to help your team win. He's a great basketball player."
Sullinger had exceeded his averages -- 19 points, 12 rebounds -- but never took over the game, and didn't even score his first basket until the 13:03 mark of the first half. It was Taylor who stole the show with 21 second-half points, who was trending worldwide on Twitter afterward, and of whom Ryan said in his press conference:
"What Jordan Taylor did, if people don't take that and frame it, for a one-game performance ... I don't know if there are too many players in the country that have ever done that, not just this year, but at any time against the No. 1 team in the country."
It would be reasonable to say that Taylor has alleviated anyone's concerns -- other than, perhaps, the folks running the Cousy Award -- about him fitting in at this level. Shooting? He was 5-of-8 on threes on Saturday, and 8-of-13 from the field. Ballhandling? He had a 3.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in Big Ten games before this one ... and he had a 7-to-1 ratio against Ohio State. Decision-making? He let the Badgers stagnate for a while late in the first half, but then he picked apart the Buckeyes on pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. As Ryan put it, "in the second half, he read every opportunity almost flawlessly."
"Jordan," said Gard, "has become the poster child for how you develop as a player here."
They should, then, frame the image of Taylor from Saturday's postgame scene, surfing atop a sea of students who'd mobbed the Kohl Center court. The biggest national story may have been that college basketball no longer has an undefeated team. Here, though, it was all about Taylor, who had offered proof: that he could pull off the most monumental of comebacks, that he could play near-perfectly against the country's last perfect team, and that in the fraternity of not just D-I point guards but the best D-I point guards, he certainly belongs.