UW tourney run is Taylor made
Taylor’s willingness to get others more involved hurt his offensive numbers and likely cost him a shot at a second straight All-America honor but it also helped the Wisconsin Badgers grow up quickly and put them in position for another possible deep run in the NCAA tournament.
After replacing three senior starters at forward, Wisconsin made another run to the upper echelon of the Big Ten and earned a 14th straight trip to the NCAA tournament, where the fourth-seeded Badgers (24-9) will open against 13th-seeded Montana (25-6) at the Pit on today.
Taylor gets a ton of credit, going from a prolific scorer to a proud passer who nurtured three new starting forwards by becoming more of a distributor and facilitator and less of a rim rattler.
Although he still led in scoring, assists and steals, his numbers were down across the board. He averaged 14.7 points this season, down from 18.1.
“His shooting percentage is down a little bit but not his leadership,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “I think it has been tremendous because of how he has brought along the other guys. When you say something 1,000 times sometimes you hesitate to say it again, but I can’t with Jordan.
“He has brought along this front line as well as anybody I could have had out there or that a coach could ask for. He has helped three reserve players from last year, who didn’t get a lot of time, into guys that are competing at a high level. Not every point guard in America can do that. But Jordan can.”
Wisconsin had to replace three senior forwards who went on to play pro ball—Jon Leuer (18.3-point average), Keaton Nankivil (9.7) and Tim Jarmusz (3.9). They were experienced, terrific perimeter shooters.
Taylor often had open lanes to the hoop with Leuer and Nankivil setting the high pick and opponents reluctant to double-team him for fear he’d kick it back out for an uncontested 3.
This season, Taylor, one of just two seniors on the roster, had to bring along three new starters in juniors Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz, who combined to average 26.9 points.
Jordan found fewer open shots, more double teams and not as many open lanes this season.
“Losing Jon and Keaton I kind of knew coming into the season a lot of teams were going to key on me early,” Taylor said. “But at the same time I knew we had a lot of guys who were talented and could put it in the hole just like Jon and Keaton did last year.”
Berggren said Taylor’s decision to dial down his own shots actually allowed him to showcase more of his all-around game.
“I think that just shows part of what makes him a great player is he gets his teammates involved,” Berggren said. “He doesn’t always have to do it by shooting the ball and scoring himself, but he can create plays and create opportunities for others, really looks to get other guys involved.
“When it comes down to it, we know that he can always score and make plays for himself, as well. But he does a great job of getting everyone involved and facilitating that way.”
Associate head coach Greg Gard said nobody had to persuade Taylor to change his game.
“It’s just a microcosm of his personality. He’s very unselfish, he’s very team-oriented and I think his first priority was how can I best ready this team for what’s going to come down the stretch?” Gard said. “He knew it was important for other kids to be nurtured and brought along and that’s a credit to him. He could have taken more shots and we probably would have won games. But I don’t think it would have helped develop the younger guys.”
The Badgers, who led the nation in scoring defense (52.9) are 9-1 in their opening NCAA game under Ryan. The Grizzles are familiar with the Badgers’ style because one of their assistants, Freddie Owens, used to play for the Badgers.
The Grizzlies aren’t exactly grizzled when it comes to NCAA experience—they have a 2-9 record—but they have their own terrific point guard in Will Cherry (16.0 scoring average) and they’re riding a school record 14-game winning streak and have already established their best record in 20 years.
Their last loss was Jan. 14 at Weber State, the same team they beat by 19 in the Big Sky title game.
Cherry said the Grizzles aren’t wide-eyed this time around like they were two years ago when they lost 62-57 to New Mexico in the NCAA tournament.
“One of the first things I did on the practice court was I kneeled on my knees and touched the NCAA logo, because how many times do you get to there as a true freshman?” Cherry said. “This year it’s more about business. It’s a business. I’m approaching it like a business. I’m here to take care of business.”