Ethan Happ

Wisconsin senior Ethan Happ blocks a shot from Iowa's Connor McCaffery in the first half of the Badgers' 65-45 win over the Hawkeyes on March 7 at the Kohl Center in Madison.

Sometimes all it takes is one possession, one defensive stop for coach Greg Gard to see his University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has reached that sweet spot where understanding and commitment have converged to make the Badgers a formidable defensive team.

One such ah-ha moment came two weeks ago when UW forced Iowa’s high-scoring team into a shot-clock violation, an example of what Gard calls a perfect possession.

“We had one against Iowa in the first half where every part of our defense was tested,” he said. “In terms of ball-screen defense, driving line, rotations, switching-at-the-end-of-a-shot-clock situations and rebounding, we played a perfect possession. That’s where you show just (good) positioning. Nobody’s gambling, nobody’s getting out of position. And if there is a breakdown, somebody’s covering up.”

It’s called synergy and it is the key to the Badgers defense. When all five moving parts are working in unison, it becomes the defense that has been the backbone for two decades of success at UW.

Indeed, the disciplined, team-oriented defense installed by former coach Bo Ryan and perpetuated by his successor, Greg Gard, is the single biggest reason UW has finished in fourth place or better in the Big Ten Conference and reached the NCAA tournament in 17 of the past 18 years. It’s also why UW has compiled a 29-16 record in the NCAA tournament since 2001-02, a mark the fifth-seeded Badgers hope to build on when they play 12th-seeded Oregon in the first round of this year’s tournament Friday in San Jose, California.

Some years UW has been strong on offense and some years — like this one — it has struggled to score. Even when that’s the case, however, the defense always gives UW a chance. It is a source of both pride and confidence for the Badgers, a combination that allows them to compete with any team in March.

This year’s defense ranks third nationally in KenPom.com’s efficiency ratings. Only two UW defenses in the KenPom era (starting in 2001-02) were better — the 2013 defense was second and the 2008 defense third.

UW’s defense isn’t holding teams in the mid-50s like it once did, but the game has changed. While opponents are scoring 61.4 points per game against UW this season, their shooting — 39.3 percent from the field, 31.2 percent from 3 — is right in line with UW’s best seasons defensively.

“There have been a lot of games where our defense propelled us to win,” senior forward Ethan Happ said. “We’ve struggled on offense a couple times, gotten stagnant. But I think we really peaked, got to where we want to be against Iowa. There were a couple times where they had to go all the way down in the shot clock. And then there was one where we hedged a ball screen, rotated well, I blocked Tyler Cook’s reverse and then Khalil (Iverson) blocked another kid’s putback. And I just yelled, because that got me fired up, how cohesive we were and how together we were that whole possession.”

UW is always solid on defense, some years are just better than others. Last year’s defense ranked 66th in KenPom, UW’s worst showing ever. But another year in the system for most of the players was enough to raise the defense back to its customary level this season.

But experience isn’t the only reason for UW’s defensive resurgence. Happ and forward Nate Reuvers are excellent shot-blockers. The agile Happ also is an outstanding defender on pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop plays. Iverson, the small forward, has become a lockdown defender on the perimeter. Guards D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison have consistently drawn charges. The Badgers have reduced their fouling dramatically in the second half of the season.

Mostly, though, UW’s defensive revival has to do with teamwork. In a bit of a surprise, no UW player was named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team, not even Happ, who had been voted to the team twice previously. If you think about it, though, the lack of individual recognition speaks volumes about UW’s defense.

“I think that’s a great testament to the quote that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts,” Gard said. “I think if you look at our guys individually, there are maybe no individual numbers that you would look at or people would get caught up in defensively. ... But I think collectively as a group they’ve bonded together and understand how good they can be together. Your best defenses are like that. You can have one guy here or there or have a shot-blocker, but if you’re leaky in other areas, you’re not going to be as good. But this group has done a terrific job. It’s important that we did, because that’s made us as good as we can be from that standpoint.”

Now the defense will be under the gun in the NCAA tournament. UW’s half of the South region is loaded with defensive dynamos, including No. 1 seed Virginia (fifth in KenPom), No. 4 seed Kansas State (fourth), No. 9 seed Oklahoma (23rd) and Oregon (18th).

The offense will need to be better than it has been for UW to make a tournament run, but it’s probably not going to put up big numbers against such tough defenses, so it’ll be up to UW’s defense to keep it in games. The defense doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be consistently good.

“Everybody always talks about chemistry and synergy offensively,” Gard said. “It makes a good offensive team and that takes time to develop and evolve. But I think the same thing can be said defensively, that it takes time to learn each other’s tendencies, strengths, how you cover up for each other. You see it start to grow. I think as you turn the calendar usually to late January, early February, as you come down the stretch run of conference play, you start to see it more consistently. Then you see moments of brilliance.”

The Badgers will need more of those moments starting Friday.


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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.


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.