These are trying days for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
The optimism stoked by the best non-conference start in a decade has given way to the reality of a 1-6 start in the Big Ten Conference that has put the Badgers in a tie for last place.
The numbers aren’t encouraging. In conference games the Badgers (10-9) rank dead last in scoring (59.0), field goal percentage (.383), free throw percentage (.383), turnover margin (-3.4) and scoring margin (-13.9). They’re 13th in scoring defense (72.9) and 3-point percentage (.270).
Individually, no Badger ranks among the top 30 scorers in the conference.
Taken together, it’s the kind of thing that can shake a team’s confidence.
That’s why coach Jonathan Tsipis is focusing as much on his team’s mindset as any strategic issues heading into tonight’s game against Penn State (9-9, 2-5) at the Kohl Center.
“That is a huge part, as much as Xs and Os,” Tsipis said. “Probably more at this time of year because you have freshmen who have never gone through the intensity they’re going through. There’s some doubting what they can do, instead of believing. It’s not easy.”
But while the Badgers’ current five-game losing streak hasn’t been an uplifting experience, neither has it sapped them of their resolve.
“I don’t like losing but each game we’re getting better and better and I just know that eventually we’re going to start a winning streak,” freshman forward Imani Lewis said. “I try not to let my teammates get down and I try not to let myself get down. I just try to find motivation in knowing we’re going to win and we just have to do better as a team and stop letting little mistakes keep leading to losses.”
Some of those little things have been recurring problems, like the miserable free throw shooting. The Badgers have attempted just six fewer free throws than their opponents in conference play, but have been outscored by 32 at the line.
Other issues have popped up recently, like taking care of the ball, shot selection, rebounding and defending, especially in the paint.
“When things weren’t going right in the non-conference we still had our defense to kind of hang our hat on,” Tsipis said. “That’s the hard part now. We know we’re not playing as well defensively, so when we go in a scoring lull you don’t have that same sense that we’ll be OK, we’ll be able to defend and rebound.
“We’re just trying to make sure that they still believe that there are a lot of controlables in the game of basketball besides the ball going in the basket.”
Lewis, for one, has learned that it can be harder to put the ball in the basket against Big Ten teams. After averaging 12.7 points and shooting 43.4 percent in non-conference games, she is down to 10.3 points and 40.8 shooting against conference foes.
But even though she’s often going up against bigger and more experienced post players, Lewis is not intimidated.
“The competition has grown a lot,” Lewis said. “Everybody is bringing it strong to me and they’re bigger than me and they’re seniors and I’m a freshman, so I just have to have a competitive mindset.
“It’s not like I can’t deal with it. It’s just having that killer mindset that whoever I face, they won’t score and I won’t let them post up. Preseason is over and it’s Big Ten play and we know everybody is hungry.”
Junior guard Kendra Van Leeuwen, who has been through Big Ten starts of 0-10 and 0-7 in her first two seasons, sees signs of progress in the program.
“It’s always hard to lose, but we’re growing a lot as a team and learning from our mistakes,” Van Leeuwen said. “I believe in us, that we can come back from this. We’re going to keep battling as hard as we can. Every game it’s something new, but we leave it in the past, take the new lessons and move forward as a team and move on to the next game.”
Van Leeuwen said she’s received a lot of advice about dealing with adversity. The best?
“I guess it’s just to have faith in the culture of the team,” she said. “You can definitely see that it’s shifting and changing and the fight is there. I think that’s really important.”