MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The feel-good start at Wisconsin is over.
A two-game slide has exposed some defensive problems that the ninth-ranked Badgers have been able to mask in part because they’re especially dangerous this season on the other end of the floor.
Now there’s a rather novel situation in Madison: a balanced offense helping to cover up defensive flaws.
“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, bring it for 40 minutes,” forward Frank Kaminsky said.
Wisconsin (16-2, 3-2 Big Ten) hopes to turn it around this week on the road, starting with a trip Wednesday to Minnesota followed by a weekend visit to Purdue. Losses to Indiana on the road and Michigan at home last week ended the team’s school-best 16-0 start.
Not that there’s panic at the Kohl Center.
In fact, 16-2 is probably about right where this team was expected to be in at this point in the season – if not slightly exceeding expectations.
Wisconsin is averaging 75.8 points per game, up nearly 11 points from last season. As is typical under coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers lead the Big Ten in offensive efficiency with an average 1.21 points per possession.
And the Badgers are still second in the conference in scoring defense allowing 62.8 points per game. They lead the nation in fewest turnovers with 8.3 per game. They’ve proven they can win defensive slugfests or up-tempo affairs.
But the last two games have stood out for allowing opponents to shoot more than 50 percent, a startling number for a team that had held its previous four opponents to no more than 39 percent shooting.
Indiana shot 51 percent against the Badgers, while Michigan shot 54 percent. The Wolverines were bolstered in part by a hot start in shooting 60 percent in the first half of a 77-70 victory.
“All those things are coming out, the problems that you don’t really see, or you don’t really care to see when you’re winning,” freshman forward Nigel Hayes said. “So we just need to refocus, re-sharpen those things and pick it out.”
Hayes is a spark off the bench. Kaminsky is a junior who has already left his mark on the program after scoring a school-record 43 points in a 103-85 victory in November over North Dakota.
They join energetic sophomore Sam Dekker in a frontcourt that can give opponents headaches on the offensive end. Wisconsin uses a three-guard starting lineup, so Hayes, Kaminsky and Dekker log the majority of minutes up front.
Dekker averaged 9.6 points in 35 games last year coming off the bench last year. Kaminsky averaged 10 minutes a game last year as a reserve, so Dekker and Kaminsky, along with first-year forward Hayes, are learning on the job playing much bigger roles.
“We have a lot to learn defensively, which has not been a secret as far as consistency,” Ryan said. “We’ve been solid most of the time, but we still have some guys who haven’t logged as many defensive possessions as you liked them to have.”
That on-the-job training showed against the Wolverines. They passed the ball well moving to the bucket, especially early in the game, though Wisconsin caught up with Michigan’s ball screens.
There were open looks on the perimeter, too. And Michigan made its share of tough shots that piled on to the Badgers’ frustration.
And yet, Wisconsin was still able to narrow a 15-point deficit to one before Michigan pulled away in the final few minutes.
Last season’s bruising front line of Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz wasn’t as skilled offensively as the current group, though they had the experience that helped them on the defensive end.
Assistant coach Lamont Paris said this year’s front line matches up with last year’s group physically, but needs to recognize defensive situations a little quicker.
“That’s something we’re going to continue to learn and get better at and do it better in the one-third of a second that you have to make the decision,” Paris said. “It really comes down to recognizing situations a little quicker and getting in position a little quicker.”