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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bucky, Meet Bubble

The 2008-09 Wisconsin men's basketball team in all likelihood will be remembered for one thing: being painful to watch in the last five minutes of games.

As the Badgers fell to Ohio State on Friday afternoon, not only did they fail to defend their Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship, but they also placed their NCAA tournament fortunes in the hands of a committee rather than removing all doubt. With the loss, Wisconsin dropped to 4-10 against RPI Top 50 teams.

For the record, I expect Wisconsin (19-12, 10-8) to get into the tourney on Sunday. A bid would extend the nation's sixth-longest current streak for NCAA tournament appearances to 11 years in a row. This equals current streaks by Texas and Gonzaga, although all three will move up a few notches if both Arizona and Kentucky fail to get in, as anticipated. Ohio State's win over Michigan State puts the Big Ten Tournament loss in perspective too.

But that 20th win would have looked nice. There are no guarantees of reaching that plateau now, meaning the spectacular back-to-back 30-win seasons might be bracketed by two 19-win seasons.

We should have seen it from the start though -- this is the same team that needed overtime to beat Iona and one of Marcus Landry's best games to bail them out at home against Long Beach State. Trevon Hughes' off-balance jumper was the only thing keeping UW from a total collapse at Virginia Tech (a team unlikely to get in). In that game, the Badgers let a 10-pt lead with less than seven minutes remaining slip to three points and then saw the rebuilt nine-point lead with under a minute left disappear completely. That scare might have been the Badgers' highlight of the season.

To be fair, Wisconsin has won a few games in the closing minutes, as it did with Idaho State. And to their credit Hughes, Landry and the defense closed out Penn State at the Kohl Center to begin the new year. Wisconsin swept a pair of bubble teams in Michigan and Penn State to get it's best road wins of the year. Wins at home against Illinois and a now solid Ohio State team -- plus a winning Big Ten record -- are the linchpins of UW's résumé. The Badgers beat (most of) the teams they should have, but consistently came up short at times they could have gotten marquee wins.

The chances were there. Marquette pulled away after trailing Wisconsin by double-digits several times in the first half in early December. Against Texas, a costly turnover by Joe Krabbenoft turned the tide in the final three minutes of a five-point loss. The Badgers battled on the road against a poor Iowa team, but got outplayed in the extra session. The first Minnesota debacle goes without explanation. A 13-4 Purdue run starting at the three-minute mark was the icing on another painful home loss. In yet another close game, Wisconsin led by a few points at Northwestern nearly the entire second half until -- you guessed it -- the Wildcats took the lead for good with 2:26 left.

All of that brings us back to this team's lack of execution when it matters most. Wisconsin completely breaks the needle, beyond empty, at crunch time. Even as the team improved down the stretch, the Badgers squandered a 12-point second half lead at Michigan State. They went the final three minutes without a field goal at Minnesota using the infamous "stand around for 30 seconds and then miss a long jumper" offense. Wisconsin made zero field goals in the final six minutes yesterday.

In that time, Wisconsin barely touched the post at all against Ohio State's zone, underscoring the need for better passers on the perimeter that can initiate offensive movement. Hughes has some explosive ability, but has proven unreliable in the facilitator role. Combine that with the lack of a true slasher to break down defenses and it is easy to see why the team struggles at the end of games. In the end, Wisconsin's defense is not as solid as the previous two seasons and cannot cover up for the offensive lapses.

What happened versus Ohio State was something you see in the NBA. Instead of turning the ball over, Evan Turner took over. He was the best player on the floor and neither Krabbenhoft nor Landry (especially with four fouls) could keep up with him. When a coach like Thad Matta exploits a favorable match up, Bo Ryan has had nothing to counter with this year.

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