SAN JOSE, Calif. — The final 20 minutes of the season weren't pretty for the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team, but they were informative.
They showed the Badgers aren't yet back to a level where they can go deep in the NCAA tournament. And they showed the Badgers exactly what the program needs to do to get back to the days where going to the Sweet 16 was a given.
Someday, the Badgers might come to appreciate the direction 12th-seeded Oregon provided with its 72-54 upset of fifth-seeded UW in an opening-round game of the NCAA tournament Friday at the SAP Center. However, with a rare second-half collapse fresh in the Badgers' minds, it was hard for them to think much beyond the sting of seeing their season of recovery end far earlier than they expected.
State Journal reporter Jim Polzin asked Badgers fans on Twitter what they thought of No. 5 seed Wisconsin's 72-54 loss to No. 12 seed Oregon i…
"It was definitely a big step from last year," forward Aleem Ford said, "but it was definitely not the way we wanted it to end."
Indeed, a year after compiling a losing record and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, the Badgers' 23-11 record, fourth-place finish in the Big Ten and No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament provided affirmation that the program hadn't fallen off the map. More important, the Badgers re-established the principles that had made the program a raging success, playing strong defense, taking care of the ball and competing with every team they played.
In the end, though, that wasn't enough. An uncharacteristic 7-minute defensive lapse at the start of the second half might have cost UW against Oregon, but make no mistake, the roots of this loss and every other Badgers loss this season were on offense.
The long, athletic Ducks fully exposed UW's offensive shortcomings. Oregon's lineup of four bouncy 6-foot-9 players prevented UW senior forward and all-American Ethan Happ from scoring at will inside, essentially pinning the Badgers' hopes on outside shooting that has been missing in action — emphasis on missing — for more than a month.
Oregon, which entered the game ranked 17th nationally in defensive efficiency, might have affected UW's outside shooting as well, but it was hard to tell if UW was rushing its shots because of the way it has been shooting lately. The Badgers went 6-for-30 from 3-point range against the Ducks, the seventh time in the last 12 games where they shot 30 percent or worse.
"We had shot it well until the last month or month and a half," coach Greg Gard said. "Is it the quality of the shot? Is it who's taking shots? Is it a fatigue factor? Can we get more production at the free-throw line? One thing to balance out some of the scoring is to get to the free-throw line more. But when they're collapsing that much in the paint, you have to be able to make perimeter shots to loosen people up, to get them second-guessing on how far out they're going to come. I don't think the quality of the shot was a problem. I think we had some really good looks, but you've got to put the ball in the basket. It's a simple game when it comes to that."
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The fifth-seeded University of Wisconsin men's basketball team fell to the No. 12 seed Oregon Ducks, 72-54, in the NCAA tournament on Friday a…
And it's a difficult game when opposing defenses are taking away Plan A — Happ inside — and Plan B — the outside shooting — is a no-show. A big problem for UW's offense was that it didn't have a Plan C.
That was never more apparent than it was against Oregon. The Ducks weren't doing much on offense, either, as the first half ended in a 25-25 tie. But point guard Payton Pritchard took over after that, penetrating and getting high-percentage shots for himself and his teammates, which set the table for Oregon's 47-point second half. Pritchard finished with 19 points and eight assists, both game-highs.
"I thought the difference was Pritchard," Gard said. "He just made things happen. When they needed a play to be made, he made it, whether it was for himself of finding other guys."
Pritchard's play illustrated how important a playmaker is to an offense and how UW's biggest problem is that it doesn't have one. The Badgers' strength over the years has been its team-oriented offense, but any offense needs a player or two who can break down the defense and score or create for others.
Until UW develops or recruits that type of player, its offense will be limited.
"When shots aren't going in from the 3-point line," guard Brevin Pritzl said, "we've got to find other ways to score."
Developing a consistent offense is the only way UW is going to get all the way back. In that regard, its best hope is that players who are now one-dimensional on offense can continue to develop and expand their games.
"I think we got the program back on track," guard Brad Davison said. "We know how good we are. We know the talent we have in this locker room. To prove to ourselves that we belong in this tournament obviously says something and moves us in the right direction. But also we know that we don't want this to be the feeling again and that this isn't Wisconsin basketball. We can go farther than this and we should be going farther than this. I think it definitely showed us the importance of doing the little things, showed us the importance of holding one another accountable, which are things we can continue to improve on for next year."
So while Oregon was much better than a 12th seed Friday, UW was done in by its own shortcomings.