In a season with multiple options, it’s fair to wonder what classifies as rock bottom for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Was it the first 5½ minutes Tuesday night, when Northwestern jumped out to a 17-point lead that paved the way for a 60-52 victory over the Badgers at the Kohl Center?
That brutal start to the game for UW (10-14, 3-8 Big Ten) came on the heels of a horrible finish Monday night, when it was outscored 30-8 over the final 9:46 of a 74-63 home loss to Nebraska.
Add those stretches to a list of low moments for the Badgers during their worst season in 20 years. There was a 25-point home loss to Ohio State in early December and a 19-point loss to visiting Marquette a week later. There were road defeats by 28 points at Purdue and 19 points at Iowa in January.
There was the meltdown late against Nebraska to start the week and now this: an 18-1 run to start the game for Northwestern, a team that has had its share of forgettable moments this season as well.
Did the way UW limped to the finish line Monday have a carryover effect that impacted its inability to get out of the starting block three nights later? Perhaps, junior center Ethan Happ acknowledged.
“It’s just tough,” he said after the Badgers’ losing streak reached four games. “We’ve got to play a full 40 minutes. We haven’t found that in the last couple games, where we played 40 minutes solidly on both ends. Shots might not go in, but we’ve got to be there mentally on the defensive end every game.”
Junior center Dererk Pardon finished with 17 points for the Wildcats (14-10, 5-6), who essentially won by default. Northwestern, which also got 14 points from senior guard Scottie Lindsey, did everything it could to give away the game in the second half, but the Badgers couldn’t take it.
In addition to making all eight of his attempts from the field, Pardon also served as the gatekeeper in the back of Northwestern’s 2-3 zone, blocking three shots and doing his part to limit UW to 24 points in the paint.
“He,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said, “played like a man tonight.”
Four players accounted for all of UW’s points. Junior forward Khalil Iverson led the way with 15 points and a career-high nine rebounds, while Happ added 14 points, redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford had 12 and freshman guard Brad Davison finished with 11.
UW shot 32.8 percent from the field for the game – a season low in Big Ten play – and just 29.4 percent in the second half.
Sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl finished 0 of 11 overall and 0 of 9 from 3-point range. The Badgers were 7 of 26 (26.9 percent) from beyond the arc as a team.
“I knew we were going to have to make shots,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “We were going to have to knock in some 3s. With how they compress the paint and what they do within the zone, matching up, you’re going to get some looks and you’re going to have to knock them down. We weren’t able to obviously do enough of that.”
Northwestern, as Collins put it, “couldn’t throw it in the ocean” during a 58-47 loss at Michigan on Monday. He thought it was important that the Wildcats knock down some shots early against UW to build some confidence, and that’s exactly how it played out.
Gavin Skelly hit a 3-pointer 18 seconds into the game to kick off an offensive fireworks show by the Wildcats, who hit eight of their first nine shots and led 18-1 after Lindsey scored on a drive 5:31 into the game.
Not only was UW not putting up enough resistance on the defensive end, it looked downright pathetic on offense. Its first five possessions of the game went as followed: Happ turnover; Happ turnover; a missed open 3-pointer by Pritzl; 1 of 2 free throws by Happ; and an Iverson turnover.
Northwestern’s lead was 37-26 at the half, with Pardon, Lindsey and Vic Law combining for 30 points on 13-of-17 shooting.
The Badgers played much better defense in the second half, but their shooting let them down.
After Davison hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut Northwestern’s lead to 44-36 with 11:04 left, UW had three golden opportunities to draw closer and failed each time.
Happ drove to the rim and had a shot go in and out, while Davison and Ford missed open 3-point looks.
Ford hit a 3-pointer to pull the Badgers within 52-46 with 1:19 left, but Northwestern went 8 of 8 from the free throw line over the final 71 seconds to hold off UW.
“Especially at the end, we had a lot of good looks trying to get back into it,” Davison said. “That’s the thing, there’s a lot of games where shots will fall or shots won’t fall, but it’s the other little things that we can control that we need to do all the time.”
The sad thing for the Badgers, who have lost seven of their last eight and are one game ahead of last-place Rutgers, is there doesn’t appear to be much hope in the near future. The way UW is trending, rock bottom may be yet to come.
“I think we just have to come together – that’s the most important thing – and start playing as one,” Iverson said. “We can’t have guys going off on their own and doing anything like that. I just think it starts with everyone playing hard, playing hard as one, and just getting things done.”