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Khalil Iverson

Wisconsin's Khalil Iverson scored 2 points while going 0-for-2 from the field in just under 13 minutes Tuesday night in the Badgers' loss to Michigan State at the Kohl Center in Madison. 

After going 0-for-Michigan in back-to-back games over four days, the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team likely saw its Big Ten Conference title chances reduced to slim and, well, somewhat less than that.

The problem is, the 20th-ranked Badgers are oh-so-close to being right in the thick of things in the most competitive conference in the country. A lot closer than their record indicates.

Nevertheless, UW's 67-59 loss to 11th-ranked Michigan State Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, coupled with its 61-52 loss at sixth-ranked Michigan Saturday, left it at 9-5 and sitting behind four teams with only six Big Ten games to play.

Both of UW's most recent losses were close until the bitter end. With 2 or 3 minutes to play, the Badgers had a chance to win both games only to see their offense falter when it counted most.

In fact, all five of the Badgers' Big Ten losses have followed that pattern. They've won their share of tight games, but when they've gotten into close games against good teams, their flaws have been exposed and their offense has disappeared down the stretch.

That certainly was the case Tuesday night. After trading the lead with the Spartans all night, the Badgers faced a 57-56 deficit with 5 minutes, 20 seconds left. That's when the bottom fell out offensively.

The next eight times they had an opportunity to score, the Badgers came unglued. They missed three shots in the paint, two from 3-point range and two free throws. They also had two turnovers.

"I felt that the whole night we were throwing punches back and forth and we felt like we were in position to win the whole time," forward Ethan Happ said. "But definitely as the game got later on we felt better about it and it was just a lack of execution as a team."

Happ, who led UW with 20 points, took his share of blame, especially his two missed free throws when the score was 59-56 with 1:28 to play. However, the offensive woes showed up long before that. In scoring only 21 second-half points, UW was 9-for-22 from the field, 2-for-10 from 3-point range and 1-for-8 from the free throw line. At home, no less.

Some of UW's struggles were due to Michigan State's defense, which threw three physical, long-armed players at Happ inside but didn't give much help, instead pressuring UW's shooters at the 3-point line. As has happened so often this season, if Happ isn't getting scoring help from others, the offense stalls.

"It's definitely tough because it could have gone either way in the last couple of minutes," forward Nate Reuvers said. "It's also a good thing, too, that we're actually in these games. But it's very frustrating not winning."

Prior to the Michigan-Michigan State double, UW had won six straight games, mostly by making a sizable leap defensively and showing flashes of improved offensive play. Their offensive formula generally has been: Get a good game from Happ, consistent scoring from guards D'Mitrik Trice and/or Brad Davison and then have two or three others show up in any given game.

Michigan State disrupted that formula by shutting down Trice and Davison, limiting them to 11 points on 4-for-18 shooting. Others took up the slack as UW grabbed a 38-37 halftime lead, but the offense vanished for much of the second half, not just the final few minutes.

"The last 10 or five (possessions) get a spotlight on them, but there's so many things in both halves that we could have extended a lead or forced us to lose a lead," coach Greg Gard said. "They go on a 12-6 run at the end of the first half. We had a seven-point lead and we don't close the half at well as we could. There's other stretches of games that can help you be in a position where maybe the last five possessions aren't magnified as much."

Gard pointed out, correctly, that UW has been able to close out games. Of UW's nine Big Ten wins, only the game at Penn State was a blowout. Still, there is no denying that UW had chances in all five of its losses and couldn't make the necessary plays.

"We've got to be better in the last 3 minutes in certain areas, in finishing plays, converting at the free-throw line, being a little bit better defensively," Gard said.

Had a couple of those losses played out differently in the final minutes, we would be looking at UW in a much different light. Michigan and Purdue lost Tuesday night, leaving the standings looking like this: Michigan and Michigan State at 11-3, Purdue at 10-3, Maryland at 10-4 and UW at 9-5.

The Badgers' biggest problem is they don't play any of those teams in their final six games, so it'll be harder to make up ground after frustrating losses to Michigan and Michigan State.

"It makes it tougher, definitely," Happ said. "But we've all seen how competitive the league is. I don't know specifically who Michigan has left, but we're just going to have to take care of the rest of our games that we have if we want any chance."

The Badgers' only hope is to win all six, which doesn't seem realistic with an offense that isn't dependable, in part because the perimeter players aren't able to create consistently.

If UW can become more efficient on offense, though, it has demonstrated that it can play with any team in the Big Ten.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.