MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers (17-5, 4-5) are struggling. In every sense of the word.
Three weeks ago, the team earned the No. 3 ranking in the country and for those who doubted the Badgers' worthiness near the top of the polls, the program-best 16-0 start to the season paired with one of the toughest schedules in the country served as ample reasoning.
Now, as the calendar turns to February, it's fairly obvious that those early-season doubters were on to something. With just one win to go against five losses -- three of which have come at the Kohl Center -- in their last six games, the Badgers are sub-.500 in conference play for the first time since they started the 2011-12 Big Ten season 1-3.
"There's a fine line between winning and losing in this league," assistant coach Gary Close said. "Right now we're on the wrong side of that fine line."
How fine of a line has it been for Wisconsin? In three of their five losses this season, the Badgers have had the lead in the second half and in the 77-70 loss to Michigan, Wisconsin cut the lead to one with just over a minute to play.
While fans have left the Kohl Center, turned off the television, silenced the radio all because of the same disgusted feeling, the Badgers have lost games this season in a multiple of ways.
Against Indiana, the Badgers were unable to stop dribble penetration. Against Michigan, they were unable to overcome the hot outside shooting of the Wolverines. Against Minnesota, the Badgers were unable to hit their three-point shots on the offensive end while trying to contain Mo Walker off the bench on the defensive end. Against Northwestern, Wisconsin was unable to contain Drew Crawford and his 30 points. Against Ohio State, the Badgers were unable to hit their free throws.
"We've lost in different ways a couple of these times," Josh Gasser said, "so it's just about putting a full 40 minutes together."
Thursday, Sam Dekker tried to motivate his teammates by uncharacteristically calling them out as "soft" and questioning whether or not they were "willing to do what it takes to win." While commendable, it's hard to believe that Dekker will be doing any more of that type of talking in the near future after his sub-par 2-for-6 performance on Saturday against Ohio State, and after both Gasser and Bo Ryan gave their two cents on Dekker's comments.
"It was fine. That's just Sam," Gasser said of Dekker's comments. "He likes to talk, that's fine. I don't really need to address that, I guess."
Ryan, at his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon, said that he did not see Dekker's direct comments but that, "If a guy says that he's got to play better - is that what Sam said? He's got to play better? I hope he didn't hurt his foot when he put it down."
Perhaps the Badger who has been criticized the most for his play recently has been starting point guard Traevon Jackson. After going 9-for-11 from the field against Indiana on Jan. 14, Jackson is shooting a mere 12-for-45 in his previous five outings. Couple that with the questionable mishandling of the basketball on the final play against Ohio State and the 6-foot-2 guard knows that the outside voices are beginning to creep in.
"That just comes with the territory of the position," Jackson said of the critics. "If you play point guard you have to be able to take the criticism when it comes."
Despite the outside voices putting the bulk of the blame on Jackson's shoulders, the coaching staff knows that what has happened over the past few weeks has not been a problem that can be attributed to one player.
"The way we've played has been a result of everybody; it's not just one guy," said Close when the question of changing the starting lineup was proposed to him. "To single one guy out when you could literally single out all eight or nine would defeat the purpose. We've got to get more consistent play from the starting lineup through the bench."
Close admitted that Jackson's play has been "a little up and down recently," but added that if there is one person on the team capable of taking the same scrutiny as quarterbacks in football, it's Traevon.
"He's a tough kid, he's played well for us most of the year and he'll learn by it," Close added.
For now, the Badgers are not playing the blame game - they just want to get back to their game. If they can do that and if they can keep their heads in the moment and on the court instead of outside listening to the naysayers, then they still have a copious amount of time to get back to their winning ways.
"They come back every day ready to go and they're not feeling sorry for themselves," Close said. "They work hard and they care about what they're doing. That is what will get us through it."
When and Where: 8 p.m. Tuesday at the State Farm Center.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1310 AM, 101.5 FM
WISCONSIN BADGERS (17-5, 4-5)
Coach: Bo Ryan, 308-118 in his 13th season at Wisconsin.
Probable starters (height, year, ppg.)
1 Ben Brust 6-1 Sr. 13.2
12 Traevon Jackson 6-2 Jr. 10.8
15 Sam Dekker 6-7 So. 13.5
21 Josh Gasser 6-3 Jr. 8.7
44 Frank Kaminsky 7-0 Jr. 12.9
Key reserves (height, year, ppg.)
10 Nigel Hayes 6-7 Fr. 7.2
13 Duje Dukan 6-9 Jr. 2.9
24 Bronson Koenig 6-3 Fr. 3.2
Quick hits: The Badgers are 7-2 away from the Kohl Center this season and 4-2 in true road games. Only Michigan State (6) has more road wins than the Badgers, among Big Ten teams. Since 2001-02, Wisconsin has the most road wins (71) and the highest road win percentage (.511) in the Big Ten…Wisconsin has won six straight over Illinois, equaling its longest win streak vs. the Illini in series history. The Badgers also won six straight in the series from 1906-08 and 1912-14…The Badgers have come away victorious in five of their last seven trips to Champaign, Ill., including their last two…Wisconsin has only won three-straight in Champaign since winning the first three trips of the series in 1906, 1907 and 1908.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (13-9, 2-7)
Coach: John Groce, 36-19 in his second season at Illinois.
Probable starters (height, year, ppg.)
2 Joseph Bertrand 6-6 Sr. 11.0
13 Tracy Abrams 6-2 Jr. 12.0
24 Rayvonte Rice 6-4 Jr. 16.5
32 Nnanna Egwu 6-11 Jr. 7.0
33 Jon Ekey 6-7 Gr. 8.0
Key reserves (height, year, ppg.)
1 Jaylon Tate 6-3 Fr. 2.5
21 Malcolm Hill 6-6 Fr. 3.5
25 Kendrick Nunn 6-3 Fr. 4.1
Quick hits: The Illini lead the all-time series against the Badgers 110-80, and hold a 68-23 edge in Champaign…John Groce is 0-3 all-time against Wisconsin…Illinois is 1-5 against ranked teams so far this season. The Badgers are ranked No. 24 in the coaches poll this week…Joseph Bertrand has scored in double figures in each of his last five games against the Badgers, including his 18 point showing in Madison last month…Rayvonte Rice is the only player in the Big Ten to lead his team in points (16.5 ppg), rebounding (5.8 rpg) and steals (1.2 spg)…Illinois is 9-2 on the season, 23-4 overall under John Groce, when scoring 70-plus points in a game…Under Groce, the Illini are undefeated in games decided by one or two points (8-0).
Why you should worry: The first team to score 60 points is 24-1 over the last 11 seasons in games between these two teams. The Badgers have not been the first team to score 60 points in a game since January 8 vs. Illinois. All five losses this season (excluding the Ohio State game because it failed to see a team score 60) the Badgers have failed to score 60 points first.
Why you shouldn't worry: The Illini have lost seven straight games overall, three straight at home, four straight against ranked opponents and six straight against ranked Big Ten opponents.
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