MADISON, Wis. - "Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spent all my money, I just did not care."
Eric Clapton's opening line in "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" perhaps best describes the beginning to the 2013-14 campaign for the Wisconsin Badgers. Eight games into the season the Badgers were allowing an alarming 66 points per game, with their worst defensive showing coming against North Dakota, which put up an astonishing 85 in a losing effort.
But that didn't matter. The Badgers were winning games and thus was born the now-traditional hashtag #WinningIsFun.
St. John's shooting 48 percent from the floor en route to 75 points? Eh…#WinningIsFun.
Eighty-eight combined points in the paint to UW-Green Bay and North Dakota? Eh…#WinningIsFun.
Finally the defense came around in a 48-38 victory over Virginia on Dec. 4, as the Badgers held the Cavaliers to just 23.4 percent shooting from the field…#WinningIsFun.
The next day at practice, Sam Dekker was asked the question, "do you think this team's defense is back?"
Winning is fun, until you stop winning. And boy does that question look dumb now.
Three losses in a row to at-the-time unranked opponents have seen the Badgers allow Indiana to shoot 52 percent from the field and score 52 points in the paint; Michigan to shoot 55 percent from the field and 54 percent from three-point range; and Minnesota to shoot 59 percent with 48 of its 81 points coming in the paint.
"I think if you're looking at someone who's shooting 55 in a whole game, there's enough possessions there where you can't just say they were hot the whole game," Ben Brust said. "Obviously you're doing something you need to be better at, which is get stops. We're looking at that. Going to work on it. And then (we've) got to go produce."
Remember in "The Dark Knight Rises" when Bruce Wayne/Batman wakes up in a foreign prison known as "Hell on Earth" - a place from which nobody (except his arch-nemesis, Bane) has managed to escape? That's kind of the place in which this Wisconsin men's basketball season is at right now. After such a high, they find themselves at a low they never saw coming - or chose to do nothing to prevent it from doing so.
Players are being harassed with questions about how they feel when they give up 70-plus points, Bo Ryan is bombarded with questions about whether or not he thinks this team has what it takes to be a good defensive team and funeral processions have a livelier mood than do the post-game press conferences.
Wayne was able to escape "Hell on Earth" when he realized that the prior attempts from other prisoners to escape by using a safety rope and climbing up the shaft toward the light was the wrong way to go about attaining freedom. Wayne ditched the safety rope and suddenly there was no safety net for him to fall back on; he had no choice but to succeed or else he would die.
Now I know the following might sound like a stretch, but stick with me here. Has the success on offense led to complacency on defense? Would this team be better served slowing down the game and not trying to beat their opponent to 80? Has this team's offense become its safety rope?
Let's get something clear, I am not proposing that the Badgers revert back to their old ways of trying to win games, 16-15. While that proved to be an effective regular season strategy, it was an unsuccessful formula come NCAA Tournament time. What I am proposing, however, is that the team gets back into the mindset of those low-scoring, grind it out games on the defensive end of the floor.
Push the ball all you want, but when the other team has the ball make sure communication is high, weak-side help is always ready and willing to rotate and sacrifice the body for the betterment of the team, and clean up the glass.
It doesn't take a scout to recognize that the Badgers have been playing uninspired defense as of late. Whether it's poor rotations on the baseline, not having hands up when guarding the ball, or the highly talked about lack of ability to cover the high-screens that set up wide-open elbow jumpers, whatever team is taking the court defensively for the Badgers this season can't be one coached by Ryan and staff. Can it?
"The standard's been set in this program," assistant head coach Greg Gard said. "Defensively we've always been very in sync and very stingy and not a program that gives up easy baskets. I think that's probably what's so glaring and so out of the norm."
The next four games offer some hope for the Badgers as they go against four of the Big Ten's bottom five scoring offenses in Purdue, Northwestern, Ohio State and Illinois, but it is up to Wisconsin as to what mindset it brings to the defensive end of the floor and whether or not they are going to let go of the mental safety rope that is their offense.
It may sound like a cliché, but it's definitely gut-check time for the Badgers. There is still plenty of time to get back to the program's defensive roots. This is about more than ending a three-game losing streak. This is about more than allowing opponents to shoot a higher percentage this season than they allowed opponents to score last season. This is about knowing who you are, even when you are "down and out."
"I get my hands on a dollar again," so goes the Clapton song. "I'm gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins."
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