BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Too often this season, a portion of Greg Gard’s postgame news conference has included the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach reciting poor shooting numbers in the paint by his team.
The Badgers’ inability to finish consistently in that area has played a role in some of their defeats. Other times, they’ve overcome that inefficiency to win close, low-scoring games, largely because their defense has saved the day.
The difference between success and failure in March for UW, which has a razor-thin margin for error, very well could depend on how well it finishes around the rim. Perimeter shooting can be streaky, which makes it even more crucial for the Badgers to convert when they get the shots they want closer to the basket.
“If we can start converting more of those — that starts with myself included — then we’re definitely going to be a better offensive team,” UW senior center Ethan Happ said.
The No. 19 Badgers (19-8, 11-5 Big Ten Conference) are coming off a breakthrough of sorts as they get set to face Indiana (13-14, 4-12) tonight at Assembly Hall.
UW finished 16 of 31 in the paint during a 69-64 win at Northwestern on Saturday night. That’s not exactly a sparkling rate of success, but it marked the first time the Badgers shot above 50 percent in the paint since going 15 of 28 in that area during a win at Illinois exactly a month earlier.
The stretch of seven games in between included poor paint performances at home against Northwestern (10 of 29), at Minnesota (12 of 29) and Michigan (16 of 40).
Even the win Saturday featured a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance in the paint for the Badgers. They went 7 of 18 in the paint in the first half, averaging 0.97 points per possession. That number shot up to 1.23 in the second half mainly because UW did a better job finishing close to the basket, going 9 of 13 over the final 20 minutes.
Happ, the Badgers’ main source of production in the paint, was 4 of 5 from the field in the second half after going 2 of 6 before halftime.
The UW star is shooting 53.6 percent in the paint in Big Ten play, a number even Happ admits should be higher. But in his defense, there are forces working against him as he tries to work his magic around the basket.
That list starts with the fact the Big Ten is filled with good defenses and, specifically, disciplined rim protectors who make Happ work hard for his points.
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He also plays in a conference known for its physical play. Scoring in the paint often requires doing it through contact, whistle or no whistle.
“The more video gets out, you learn more about an opponent, you try to take away certain things whether it’s individual moves or a tendency of a team,” Gard said. “Now you’ve got to make the next move in terms of whatever it is on the chessboard you need to do. Some of it is individual improvement and getting better at that, or finding other ways as we constantly look each week of how can we attack, maybe a slight tweak of how can we attack people or countering what they’re trying to do to us defensively.”
According to shot chart data drawn from the Statbroadcast website used around the Big Ten, senior forward Khalil Iverson is at 51.7 percent in the paint. Sophomore Nate Reuvers is UW’s most efficient finisher (57.1 percent) in the paint, but the 6-foot-11 forward only has attempted 31 shots at the rim in 16 conference games.
“You get tired, your legs go, it’s later in the season, bodies are getting bigger and stronger and the refs may be letting us play a little bit more. There are a lot of things that go into it,” Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “You’ve just got to be almost stubborn. That’s what I tell them, ‘Just be stubborn. You’ve got that ball right where we want it, you are not leaving without points, whether it comes by way of a bucket, free throws or both.’”
UW’s guards need to do their part, as well. Sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice is only 10 of 30 in the paint in Big Ten play, including 3 of 11 on floaters and runners outside of the block-charge circle.
All 21 of sophomore guard Brad Davison’s paint baskets in conference play have come around the rim, according to the Statbroadcast data, but he’s only converting at a 41.2-percent clip on those types of attempts.
“It’s a mentality,” UW assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “You’ve really got to go in there with the mindset of, ‘I’m going to finish whether you foul me or not.’ I think we’ve, for the most part this year, we’ve gone in with the mindset of trying to draw fouls instead of trying to draw and-ones, and there’s a difference.”
Saturday was a step in the right direction in that regard. Iverson produced a pair of three-point plays in the final 5 minutes to turn a two-point deficit into a three-point lead.
Meanwhile, Davison absorbed contact during a drive in the first half, drew a whistle and converted a three-point play. He earned another and-one opportunity in the second half but missed a free throw.
“I’m just trying to be as aggressive as I can be,” Davison said. “When I see a matchup that I like, I’ve got to take advantage of it. A lot of people are trying to run me off the 3-point line. … You’ve got to make the defense pay for what they’re trying to do.
“I know I can get there, it’s just a thing of focusing and not trying to get all the contact but just get a little bit of the contact and get the two points as well.”