An up-tempo squad, No. 3 Wisconsin needs to find its defensive roots

Bo Ryan knows his team lacks defensive moxie. (USATSI)

These are hardly the Wisconsin Badgers college basketball fans loath to watch. They’re an athletic, run-and-gun, shoot-early bunch -- highly atypical of Bo Ryan’s usually ugly squads. 

For more than a decade, Ryan’s teams have won by slowing the ball down, minimizing turnovers, and abstaining from committing fouls. The latter two -- staples of Ryan’s teams -- are still ever-present in this year’s squad, now 16-2 following Saturday’s surprising 77-70 loss at home to Michigan. 

But Wisconsin’s emphasis on offense -- it entered Saturday’s game leading the Big Ten in scoring at more than 79 points per game -- seems to have replaced its focus on the defensive end, at least recently. In the Badgers' now back-to-back losses, their opponents Indiana and Michigan have shot 53 percent (61-of-115) from the field, and although they've yet to face the Big Ten's best team, Michigan State, it's clear that Wisconsin won't be beating the Spartans without a renewed emphasis on defense. 

In Tuesday’s 75-72 loss at Indiana, the Hoosiers dominated Wisconsin in the paint, scoring 52 points. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana's sparkplug PG, seized every opportunity to penetrate, and it ultimately worked as Traevon Jackson couldn't keep him in front. In Saturday’s loss, the damage down low wasn’t as bad, but Michigan got into the lane with ease (Glenn Robinson III was particularly deadly), which opened up perimeter opportunities for the Wolverines. 

"We didn't really close out as fast as fast as we should’ve, because maybe in their minds they’re thinking well we need to protect the driving lanes,” Bo Ryan said on Saturday. "We let that get away from us last game, so we’re trying to fix some things, guys aren’t quite sure, and you have to keep working through it.” 

So in plugging the gap near the basket, Wisconsin opened up another leak along the perimeter. 

"The thing is you plug one hole then sometimes you feel like you’re in a football game and your defense gave up X number of points and then you fix that and then the offense … " Ryan said, following only his 19th loss at home in 13 years as Badgers coach.

Michigan’s guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert, in particular, abused Wisconsin's defense, using numerous pick-and-rolls to their advantage.

“We played [the pick-and-rolls] well,” Badger guard Josh Gasser said. “The stats might not show it. They made some tough shots. We just had to be more physical on them. I thought we were a little soft on them in a few of those screening situations early in the game and that hurt us.”

It was a defensive lapse late on Nik Stauskas that ultimately cost Wisconsin a chance at a comeback over unranked Michigan. 

"The amazing thing is that last year when we didn't do well offensively, we still did defensively with that experience we had on that front line we were making things pretty tough for people," Ryan said. "We might not have looked good offensively [last year], but defensively we gave ourselves a chance." 

Wisconsin, now 3-2 in the conference, still has a favorable schedule and should still be in the mix for the Big Ten race. But should the Badgers finish within the top-4 of the Big Ten standings for the 13th consecutive year, don’t expect it to be a carbon-copy of year's past. 

This Wisconsin squad is the most offensively gifted team that Bo Ryan has had in Madison. It’s his job, though, to teach them the defensive principles, which have been the trademark for Ryan's often not so aesthetically pleasing teams.

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