Author: Asher Low
A pair of 20 minute halves is what makes or breaks a season in the first round of the NCAA tournament. For the Badgers season, it was the second half that broke them.
When Wisconsin fans saw the draw, they knew they were in for a dogfight. The Oregon Ducks now sit in the sweet 16 as arguably the hottest team in the country. The two teams are similar in terms of style, as they focus on their defense and generate offense from getting consistent stops. Yet, in a one and done scenario, the team full of confidence and playing their best basketball of the season generally comes out on top regardless of the number in front of their name. That is exactly what happened in San Jose.
The 72-54 win for the 12 seeded Ducks exposed issues the Badgers have had all season, even extending back to last season with this same core. Oregon knew that the Badgers hadn’t seen a matchup zone or zone press like the one Oregon plays, and as a matter of fact hadn’t seen much zone in Big Ten play at all this year. Oregon played a 1-2-2 full court press that slowed the Badgers down and created short shot clock situations for a team that already struggles for offense in the half-court.
“Not a lot of teams run zone that we scouted in the Big Ten,” said sophomore Oregon guard Will Johnson. When asked about the full court press Johnson clarified that, “the full court is just to get the shock clock lower, we try to get around 21-23 seconds and then you start your offense late and rush it.” This full court, athletic press that Oregon runs took its toll on the Badgers as it made execution in the half court that much more difficult when Wisconsin found themselves in many late shot clock situations.
The key to breaking down the press and the half court matchup zone that Oregon plays is to make perimeter shots with consistency. This is something that last year’s Badger team struggled mightily to do, and despite their hot start, this year’s team also lacked the shooting needed to break down a zone with consistency. The Oregon zone forced the Badgers into tough threes on Friday, and that resulted in one of the worst shooting performances of the season with Wisconsin shooting 6-30 from beyond the arc for a demoralizing 20 percent.
When asked about the looks Wisconsin created in the post-game press conference, Badger junior point guard D’Mitrik Trice felt satisfied, despite the numbers. “Honestly, I think we got pretty good looks. I thought Ethan [Happ] did a really good job of getting out when the double team came, and I think we reversed the ball really, really well.” Despite the quality of looks the Badgers may have think they got, the length of Oregon, led by prolific shot blocker Kenny Wooten, Paul White, and Louis King, created matchup nightmares and led to contested jumpers all afternoon long.
Oregon threw a variety of looks at Happ in order to keep the Badger star on his toes offensively. “He’s a great player, and we scouted him a lot,” said sophomore Oregon guard Will Johnson. Johnson, a member of the scout team as a player who doesn’t get consistent minutes in Coach Altman’s rotation, has a unique vantage point on how the Ducks prepared for Happ, given that it’s his job to replicate tendencies of the Badger star in practice. “We wanted to switch it up, sometimes double him, sometimes play him straight up, and we wanted to keep him guessing,” said Johnson.
The Ducks, and specifically star point guard Payton Pritchard, have amped up their defense throughout this winning streak and have held their two NCAA Tournament opponents to 54 and 53 points respectively. Dana Altman praised Pritchard for his “aggressiveness, both offensively and defensively,” that sparked not only the tournament success, but changed the mentality of this Oregon team back in late February.
Give Oregon and head Coach Dana Altman all the credit they deserve. This team has reinvented its identity since losing freshman star Bol Bol, and committed itself to defense. The Ducks won four games in four days to win the Pac-12 tournament just to get to the madness, including a come from behind win against a tournament team in Arizona State. After beating UC Irvine thanks to more stifling half-court defense, a date with number 1 Virginia awaits.
Wisconsin now looks to a future without Ethan Happ as the program builds towards next season. Questions loom over whether or not Nate Reuvers is capable of stepping into to a Happ-like player that many Badger fans believe he has the potential to become. The two have distinctly different skill sets, yet given the significant freshman to sophomore jump for Reuvers both physically, by adding 20 pounds of muscle to his frame, and skillfully as he improved his stroke and touch around the rim, Wisconsin fans are hopeful to see his growth continue. He is a player that has improved mightily since joining the program and has arguably the highest ceiling on next year’s Badger roster.
The Badgers return the starting backcourt of Davison and Trice, and both players need to become even more consistent three point marksman if this team is going to have the offensive firepower to be near the top of the Big 10. A combined 2-17 day from beyond the arc against Oregon is a performance they would soon like to forget. Next year can’t come soon enough for the Badger backcourt.
Coach Greg Gard and the Badgers need a transformational summer to improve the pieces they have. Returning the three aforementioned starters becomes much more essential if each respective starter can improve on their weaknesses in the off-season. The Badgers don’t have a myriad of five star recruits walking into the Kohl Center next season, and will rely on improving their key pieces in order to improve as a basketball team. Questions loom, and only time will tell how the Badgers will answer them.