Night Line: How Far Can Wisconsin’s Unique System Carry Them?Posted by EJacoby on December 1st, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanJacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
Every year, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan finds a way to turn a collection of mostly unheralded individual players into an overachieving team, thanks to a well-designed playing style that values time of possession and situational playmaking. This season appears to be no different, and in fact might be the ultimate example of the perfect Wisconsin system. Bo’s Badgers suffered their first loss of the season on Wednesday night at No. 4 North Carolina, yet the team nearly pulled out a victory against a team it never stood a chance against, at least on paper. Once the ball tips off, Wisconsin dominates the pace of games, and this team does one thing better than any other – it limits their opponents’ possessions. This style almost took down UNC tonight, and it should lead to victories against nearly any other team.
This is Bo Ryan basketball; a slowed-down version of the game that may not be the most entertaining for casual fans to enjoy, but is fascinating for basketball purists to watch. A Wisconsin tilt this season averages out to a 60-possession game, which is the lowest pace in the country. They have the best defensive efficiency (83.5) and lowest turnover rate (8.1 per game) in the nation as well. They have a fearless leader in preseason All-America point guard Jordan Taylor, and he orchestrates the team on both ends of the floor. Even though the Badgers got outrebounded on Wednesday by 13 against North Carolina, and they hardly ever got to the free throw line (six attempts), limiting their opponent’s offensive opportunities gave them a reasonable chance to win in the final few minutes. Few teams that Wisconsin plays will be as gifted offensively as UNC, so they should be able to prevent more points against other teams by employing this style.
Wisconsin, which fell to 6-1 in the loss, had several leads against Carolina, including a five-point advantage at the under-12 timeout in the second half, but could not hit enough big shots to prevent the Tar Heels from mounting a comeback. In fact, it was the worst shooting performance of the season for the Badgers. They came into the game shooting 49% from the field, including a remarkable 47% from three-point range with an average of 11 makes per game, both second in the nation. Tonight they shot 36% from the field, including a relatively ugly 8-28 from deep (28.6%), so it was remarkable that the Badgers only wound up losing by three points. But considering that they executed their playing style perfectly – committing only four turnovers while causing 14, and limiting Carolina to 45 shot attempts (they came in averaging 65) – it was really only the lack of three-point conversions that prevented Bo Ryan’s club from sneaking out of Chapel Hill with a win.
Of important note in this game was the skill that Wisconsin’s players-not-named Jordan Taylor showed offensively. Junior Jared Berggren looked great in displaying an ability to create shots in a number of ways. The 6’10” forward hit two threes, showed driving ability from the perimeter, and also converted inside, to the tune of 14 points. Sophomore Ben Brust was tremendous as well, showing deep range on one three-pointer and converting a difficult layup in traffic over UNC’s lengthy defenders. Both players had three steals and were active defensively. Ryan Evans, a junior, has shown flashes throughout his first two seasons and looked confident in this game too, finishing with ten points, seven rebounds, and three blocks. While Taylor, who finished with an 18/4/4 assts in an ‘off’ night (6-20 shooting), continues to run this team smoothly, he will need the offensive contributions from players like Berggren in order for Wisconsin to execute its system to its fullest potential.
Considering how well they slowed down the Tar Heel attack, we just might be looking at an Elite Eight-level team in Wisconsin. Our best assessment at this point is that the Badgers could be up there with the best of the bunch after the super-talents of North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State, and whatever other one or two teams reach the upside that their rosters present (Connecticut or Baylor, for example). But after this group of teams, Wisconsin has a stylistic advantage that they could use to ride past any other potential opponent — defend meticulously every possession, and run clock on offense until a good shot presents itself (preferably worth three points). Of course, one bad shooting night like the Badgers had in last year’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Butler, and this functioning style ends quickly and ugly. But they have the pieces to run the system, as guys like Brust, Berggren, and Evans have shown confidence and an ability to produce consistent offense. Mike Bruesewitz (7.7 PPG) and Josh Gasser (10.2 PPG) struggled tonight, but they are starters who will come back strong. This is a team that should not be forgotten about after Wednesday’s road loss at Carolina. As long as their star and leader Taylor stays healthy, don’t be surprised if Wisconsin stays in or near the top-10 for the rest of this season.