Criticism follows Badgers’ success
Everyone knows what Wisconsin basketball looks like. Close games, low scores, lots of whistles and a bunch of big Jordan Taylor baskets at the end of the shot clock.
Apparently not always.
Last Friday against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, the Badgers showed they weren’t so predictable after all. Wisconsin won by eight, but the contest felt lopsided all the way through. Perhaps most notable was the Badgers’ final point total (79), more than they scored during any regular-season conference game and even more surprising because Taylor contributed only 12 points.
Sure, the senior guard and former Benilde-St. Margaret’s standout hit four of the last six free throws, but Rob Wilson, who had scored no more than 11 points all season until suddenly exploding for 30 to lead the Badgers, did the bulk of the work.
In some ways, it bucked everything people think they know about Wisconsin basketball. So does a game like that answer those who have been critical of Wisconsin’s style?
“I never heard anybody. Next question,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said curtly in response to that very question.
If the Badgers coach is sensitive to the criticism, it’s not a big surprise. Wisconsin—which begins NCAA tournament play as a No. 4 seed against Montana on Thursday—is regularly positioned as one of the Big Ten’s punching bags for negative feedback despite the sustained success of 14 consecutive NCAA tourney berths.
The most recent flak came from inside conference walls. Sports Illustrated’s website recently published a story citing two anonymous Big Ten coaches giving uncensored, occasionally brash opinions on teams around the league. The analysis of Wisconsin was less-than-flattering, saying Taylor “likes to run and grab you” while the Badgers, as a whole, “cheat the game.”
Taylor just shakes his head at that stuff.
“Criticism is just part of it,” he said. “Everybody has critics; that’s part of what makes playing fun. … Me, I love it. It kind of adds fuel to the fire and ups the stakes. It’s fun for me.”
For Wisconsin, the “fun” probably is easier to talk about now that the Badgers safely have a spot locked up in the tournament and have a seed that puts them on a path to reach the Sweet 16 for the sixth time since 2000.
But it wasn’t always so sure this season, as Ryan reiterated to media after the NCAA field was announced Sunday. The Badgers started the conference schedule a stunning 1-3 after being touted as one of the league’s best in the preseason. They followed with a six-game winning streak, but then lost three more times in a five-game span.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster,” Taylor said. “Obviously, critics play a big part of that but the most important thing is just to try to get wins, and I think we responded to adversity as individuals and as a team all year long.”
Wisconsin has had the same starting lineup for all 33 games this season, and that group includes three Minnesota natives: Taylor, big-man Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg) and forward Mike Bruesewitz (5.5 ppg). Friday, they helped the Badgers put to death one demon by winning their first Big Ten tournament game since 2008.
“Where were you between ’04 and ’08?” Ryan retorted when asked about that drought. “Were you doing your job here?”
They’ll have to do it a few more times to buck another trend: shrinking in the NCAA tournament as the games get bigger. The Badgers haven’t made it as far as the Elite 8 since 2005. Some experts have the Badgers coming up short again, while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Wisconsin in his Final Four.
But whatever the pundits say, the Badgers will just keep playing their game, whether people like it or they don’t. Regardless of whether it’s predicable or erratic, whether it’s Taylor at the end or someone else, they have faith in the direction they’re heading as the NCAA tournament starts.
“It’s already different since we finally got a win (at the Big Ten tournament),” Taylor said “That’s definitely big. It’s a different group of guys, we’ve got a lot of new personalities. We’ve just got to find a way to get the job done.”