Jim Polzin: Perhaps the computers were right all along about the Wisconsin men’s basketball team | Wisconsin Badgers Men’s Basketball

The grumbling has been pretty steady the last couple weeks, with both fans and media members complaining that computers weren’t showing enough love to the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.

The Badgers’ resume and spot in the human polls suggested they were among the top 15 teams in the country. The numbers spit out by the analytics folks — KenPom, Bart Torvik, others — suggested UW wasn’t quite as good as indicated by its gaudy record.

The nerds may be right, after all, based on a humbling couple hours Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center. A 73-65 loss to Rutgers not only was damaging to the No. 14 Badgers’ Big Ten title hopes, it was yet another sign of how vulnerable they can be regardless of opponent or venue.

It’s been a fantastically fun season and having a player the caliber of Johnny Davis provides hope for a deep run in March. But this team is flawed in too many areas and, frankly, it’s a little surprising there haven’t been more dud performances like this one.

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“You can pick and choose a whole lot of stuff out of the game. It could be our turnovers, our free throws, our 3-point percentage,” said UW junior forward Tyler Wahl, who finished with a career-high 23 points and was one of the few bright spots for UW (19-5, 10-4 Big Ten). “We’ve just got to end up hitting shots and playing better basketball to come out with a win in that game.”

Wahl is correct that there were a lot of reasons for this defeat. UW finished with 11 turnovers, including nine in 33 possessions after halftime. That’s awful for any team, much less one that counts taking care of the ball as one of the pillars in this program’s long run of sustained success.

The free throw shooting was poor as well. The Badgers came into the game shooting 75% from the line and went 9 of 17 against the Scarlet Knights, with Davis going 1 of 4. That’s nine wasted chances for points — Davis missed the front end in a bonus situation in the first half — in an eight-point defeat.

Plus, UW went 4 of 19 from beyond the arc. Senior guard Brad Davison, stuck in a shooting slump that has reached four games, was 3 of 13 overall and 1 of 9 from 3-point range and forced the issue right around the time things went sour for the Badgers during the stretch run.

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Badgers coach Greg Gard had another item for the list: shoddy defense out of the gates. Rutgers scored 25 points on its first 15 possessions of the game and Gard’s biggest gripe was that blown assignments led to too many quality looks for the Scarlet Knights from 3-point range.

For me, the most shocking aspect of this loss was how UW completely fell apart at the end. This was a team that had shown tremendous poise and grit when it needed it the most this season, producing an 11-1 record in games decided by six or fewer points.

That record is still intact, but only because the Badgers were so dysfunctional down the stretch that they let a tight game turn into what won’t even officially be counted as a “close” loss.

UW took a 60-59 lead when Wahl scored on a hook shot with 4 minutes, 48 seconds remaining. Things got ugly after that and the Badgers’ next seven possessions went something like I would have seen at the 6th grade basketball tournament I had to miss while covering this game:

Davis turnover. Davison miss on a drive. Wahl miss from point-blank range. Davis miss on a forced shot. Wahl turnover in which he was picked from behind. Davis turnover on a pass that ended up in the stands behind the UW bench. Davis turnover.

By that point, a one-point lead had turned into a 10-point deficit and all remained was what the final score would be in Rutgers’ first win in six trips to Madison.

“That’s not us,” Gard said.

It was, indeed, an uncharacteristic display from a team that has overachieved this season. It’s hard to even be too frustrated with this group — ask anyone back in November and they gladly would have taken a 19-5 record at this point of the season — but the loss dropped the Badgers out of a tie for first place and makes their path to a title much more difficult.

“There’s no reason to dwell on our loss,” Davis said. “There’s nothing we can do to go back and change it. But we’ve still got to see them in New Jersey.”

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That’s a great attitude and it’s a reflection of another strength of this team: its ability to bounce back and learn from bad experiences. I interviewed all three UW assistant coaches earlier this week and one of the things they thought stood out about this team was how it handled defeats. One example came when the coaches entered the locker room after a home loss to Michigan State on Jan. 21 and loved what they saw and heard from players who were disappointed but not crushed.

The confidence hasn’t wavered in a resilient group. UW hasn’t lost two games in a row this season, though that accomplishment will be put to the test in a game at Indiana on Tuesday night. Lose a game like this at home and it just means you need to steal one on the road somewhere to even things out.

“They’re disappointed. It burns,” Gard said. “I don’t want them to be so happy-go-lucky that this doesn’t matter. This matters. You could hear a pin drop in the locker room. This means something to them. But in this sport, in this league, you’ve got to flip it pretty quick. You can’t let today impact us as we prepare for Tuesday.”

There are still plenty of chances for UW to prove this was an aberration and that greatness still can be achieved. Or perhaps the computers were right all along and this was a team that had defied the laws of mathematics.

Contact Jim Polzin at [email protected]