Perhaps the calendar will flip to February and the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team will go on a magical run the way it did a year ago.
But that scenario seems more and more unrealistic the closer the Badgers get to that stretch run. Not only is UW facing a daunting schedule over the final five weeks of the regular season, it’s been maddeningly erratic in Big Ten play up to this point.
Greg Gard’s team can’t seem to put two good halves together, much less two impressive games in a row. That trend played out again Saturday afternoon during the No. 14 Badgers’ 81-71 loss to Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania.
Myreon Jones scored a game-high 20 points and Izaiah Brockington added 18 to help the Nittany Lions end a 13-game losing streak to UW. It was Penn State’s first victory in the series since a 36-33 decision in the 2011 Big Ten tournament.
Poor perimeter shooting and a second-half defensive collapse — sound familiar? — were the biggest reasons the Badgers (13-5, 7-4 Big Ten) stumbled home with a split of a road trip that began with a win at Maryland three days earlier.
“You would expect us, especially being a senior-led group, to be more consistent,” senior forward Nate Reuvers said. “That’s the big thing coach Gard has been talking about. Our coaches are doing everything they can — film and what not — to get us prepared and it’s really frustrating because we know we can do it and we’ve proven that. Better to figure it out now than later.”
Reuvers matched his season high with 18 points off the bench to lead UW. Senior forward Aleem Ford added 15 and sophomore forward Tyler Wahl had 13, though he was held scoreless after halftime.
Meanwhile, UW’s starting backcourt — seniors D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison — were a combined 5 of 20 from the field.
The Badgers shot 25% from 3-point range, going 7 of 28, and there were plenty of open looks in that array of misses.
“I didn’t think that was as much of an issue as what the defensive end was,” Gard said. “We were too porous defensively.”
What bugged Gard the most was that Penn State has a similar offensive makeup and system as Maryland, which was held to 55 points by the Badgers. UW did a great job of keeping the Terrapins out of the paint and, at least for a half, was solid in that area against the Nittany Lions.
But the dam broke in the second half. Penn State shot 54% from the field and scored 50 points after halftime, with Jones, Brockington and John Harrar (17 for the game) combining for 36.
Defense should be the Badgers’ calling card, yet there have been too many instances this season where opponents score in bunches against them. Penn State’s longest string of scoreless possessions after halftime was three, and even that stretch included a pair of missed free throws by Harrar.
Gard was asked afterward how surprised he is about how inconsistent his experienced team has been on that end of the floor.
“That’s the word I use more than any other word in the locker room with the guys,” he said. “At times, we’re really, really good and for us to play at a high level we have to be good on that end of the floor. The notion that we’re going to outscore teams is the fairytale.”
Penn State scored 24 points over its first 16 possessions of the second half to turn a three-point halftime deficit into a 55-49 lead with 11-plus minutes remaining.
Part of the issue was that UW was allowing too much dribble penetration. But there were also a handful of times when good offense beat good defense, with the Nittany Lions making contested 2-point jumpers.
One example came after the Badgers had pulled to within 62-57 on a dunk by Reuvers. The ensuing solid defensive possession for UW was wasted when Brockington made a long jumper while fading away from the basket just before the shot clock expired.
That was just one mentally draining sequence for UW, which missed its share of decent looks at the other end.
“Basketball is a mental game,” Wahl said. “They started the second half with a 3 and a layup, I think, and then just gained confidence so the tough shots become a little bit easier for them. And we weren’t knocking down our shots, so the easy shots get harder. That’s kind of the story of the second half.”
The story of the season for UW has been its inability to get on a roll. It has yet to win three consecutive games in Big Ten play and, this time, couldn’t even string a pair of wins together against teams near the bottom of the conference.
In a scheduling quirk, these teams will meet again Tuesday night at the Kohl Center. Reuvers was asked whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
“It’s a great thing,” he said. “Coach said we failed the test today, but you get a retake. You get to redo it and change your grade in the grade book. We’ll see how well we’ve improved defensively after watching the tape. It’s a great thing to be able to play another team right away and get them back.”
Photos: Badgers come up short against Nittany Lions