SAN JOSE, Calif. — When the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was at its best this season, D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison were shooting the lights out from 3-point land.
Once UW’s sophomore guards cooled down, however, offense became an on-again, off-again proposition for the 21st-ranked Badgers. They willed their way through it to compile a 23-10 record and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, but offensive consistency remains elusive as UW opens tournament play with a game against Oregon today at the SAP Center.
So can the defensively sound, offensively challenged Badgers make a run in the NCAA tournament?
At the risk of oversimplification, UW will go as far as Trice and Davison take it. That’s because when they’re making shots, UW is a different team. As in, a really good team, a team that can go to another level.
Problem is, they haven’t been making many shots for the past 11 games and UW’s customary grind-it-out offense has become more of a grind-your-teeth offense. Trice and Davison have it within their power to change that and, with UW facing a one-and-done scenario, there is no time like the present for them to help UW fulfill its potential on offense.
“I really don’t think we’ve had a game where everyone has clicked completely,” assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “Hopefully, that can happen in the next couple of games because we could be really dangerous. We have a lot of capable guys, a lot of guys that can put the ball in the hole and do a lot of different things. We’re fully confident in all of them.”
Typical of the NCAA tournament, it won’t be easy for UW to finally get itself together on offense. Red-hot Oregon has a long, athletic lineup, plays a complex matchup zone defense and is 17th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. Should UW keep winning, dates against Kansas State and Virginia are likely in the next two rounds. Both teams rank in the top five in KenPom defense.
If this was soccer, we would call the top half of the South region the group of death, especially for a team like UW that is struggling on offense. The combination of Ethan Happ inside and Trice and Davison outside was deadly early on but defenses, especially those in the Big Ten Conference, eventually caught on and started making everyone’s life difficult. Not even the emergence of Khalil Iverson as a second inside scorer and more frequent — though far from consistent — scoring from Nate Reuvers, Brevin Pritzl, Kobe King and Aleem Ford could smooth out the offense.
The problem is easy to spot. In its first 22 games, UW made 40.2 percent of its 3-point shots. In its last 11, it is shooting 28.7 percent, with no game over 38.5 percent.
Not all of that is on Trice and Davison, of course, but as UW’s second- and third-leading scorers, respectively, they are the most responsible for those numbers. They also are the most likely players to help UW turn it around quickly and capitalize on its stellar defense, which ranks third in KenPom.
“You look at the NCAA tournament, most of the time it’s the ability to generate offense,” coach Greg Gard said. “You look at the tournament runs that we’ve had, you’ve got to be able to score. If we can find another way to get six, eight points a game more, that can make a huge difference.”
If you go back to November and December, it’s hard to imagine how UW’s backcourt got here. Through nine games, Trice was leading the nation with 60 percent shooting from 3-point range. He still sits at 40 percent for the season, but is shooting 26.5 percent in his last nine games. Davison was shooting 44.3 percent on 3s through 22 games, but is making only 24.1 percent in his last 11 games.
There is much that goes into that. Most Big Ten teams play strong defense and the familiarity of the league makes life difficult for every offensive player. Trice, for instance, loves to shoot while going to his right, so Big Ten teams essentially forced him to go to Plan B, especially late in the shot clock. Davison, more than Trice, tends to get frustrated and force shots early in the shot clock.
“Teams scout like crazy in the Big Ten,” Trice said. “They know everybody’s tendencies and what they like to do and what their sweet spots are. They’re not leaving anybody on the wings open.”
A big part of the reason Trice and Davison are in shooting slumps is because the quality of their shots has gone down. Getting away from the Big Ten should help in that regard, but the real solution to UW’s shooting woes is more ball movement, more body movement, less dribbling and better shots.
“We’ve put a lot of time into our game and we expect to make shots,” Davison said. “We’re extremely confident with our shots, with 3-pointers or pull-ups. So that’s what we’re looking forward to this week, the opportunity to get out there and make some shots. There’s highs and lows with shooting. I think it always averages out. We haven’t hit a few for awhile now, so it’s got to come up pretty soon.”
The trends say otherwise. UW was only 2-for-19 from 3 against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Oregon is holding opponents to 29.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
But the Badgers have done it before. Now they have to do it again.