Badgers finally showing signs of maturity: Smarter play keys recent streak
But rather than the Fountain of Youth, the Badgers have been in search of the savvy that comes with age and experience.
Coach Bo Ryan calls it playing older and with five games left in the regular season, there are signs that his team has started to light a fire under Father Time.
“Playing older means playing with moxie and playing with the idea that you want to give yourself a chance to be successful and there is no question what gives you (a good chance),” Ryan said. “Play good defense, take care of the ball, hit the boards (and) you’ve got a chance.”
Give UW checks in all three categories for its play of late, a two-week run that has allowed it to move from ninth in the Big Ten standings into a two-way tie for sixth with Minnesota.
How much the Badgers (16-9, 7-6 Big Ten) have truly grown, however will be measured in the next two weeks when they will play three of four games on the road. The run begins at 8 tonight at Indiana (6-18, 1-11), followed by a trip to sixth-ranked Michigan State on Sunday and a visit to Minnesota on March 4.
UW plays Michigan on March 1 in the only home game of that stretch.
“The little experience that some of the younger guys might have, they can learn a lot from it” sophomore Jon Leuer said. “I think some of those guys are starting to turn the corner and ultimately that has led to our success in these last few games.”
Put Leuer in the class of the young and mature as well as sophomores Tim Jarmusz and Keaton Nankivil and freshman Jordan Taylor. Those players have provided solid support for the team’s small upper class.
And while the veterans sparked the Badgers’ winning streak, UW’s turnaround isn’t completely explained by their improvement alone.
During the Badgers four-game winning streak, they have averaged 7.8 turnovers per game. Their rebounding margin is plus-2, including plus-6.3 for the last three games. Defensively, the Badgers held two opponents (Illinois and Penn State) below 40% shooting, held Penn State’s Big Three of Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle almost 23 points below their season average and forced Ohio State into 19 turnovers, one below its season high.
“They’re feeling more comfortable in what they’re doing and what they’re reading and things like that,” assistant coach Gary Close said of the team’s young players. “But I don’t know if there is any one thing I could point to; it’s always a process. It takes time.”
For different players, that means different things.
Taylor’s emergence has helped improve the defense and the decision making. His ability to absorb the more detailed scouting in the college game has been important in that regard as has his attention to seemingly minor details such as grabbing loose balls and rebounds with two hands and his willingness to hit the deck for loose balls.
In the last eight games, Taylor has a three-to-one assist/turnover ratio, and the game has slowed down for him.
“Early in the season, you’re playing not to mess up and now I’m playing just to play . . . so I think that helps,” he said.
Jarmusz has experienced a similar comfort level recently, which perhaps is reflected in his 8-for-15 shooting in the last five games after hitting just 27% of his attempts during the first eight league contests.
But more than points, Jarmusz’s greatest strength is his ability to do a little of everything. His game isn’t pretty, but he is so assignment-sound that he is trusted to play at the end of games.
“It’s a mind-set. You’ve got to stay focused. You’ve got to pay attention,” he said. “You can’t have little breakdowns because the littlest breakdown can cost you a bucket, which can cost you a game.”
Leuer, meanwhile, has made major strides in protecting the lane. It’s a major accomplishment for someone whose defense was suspect at the start of the year.
Yeah, he’s growing up, but the way he sees it, so are a lot of his teammates.
“People are taking on more of a leadership role and not just our seniors . . .” he said. “It’s something I really can’t explain, but you can see it. You can feel a different vibe I guess, on and off the court.”