If there is one thing everyone is quickly learning this Big Ten season it is that confidence means nothing and history means nothing. Look at our last four games. After trouncing Illinois in the second half and playing a pretty solid game at Minnesota we have followed those games with pretty bad Thursday efforts against teams we should probably beat.
It is not even limited to us, as it affects the entire conference. Wisconsin had been dominated in their last road game and they came in 1 for the last 40 years at Mackey Arena. That didn't stop them from opening a 22-4 lead. At Indiana, the Hoosiers were seemingly invincible at home and Minnesota came in as the only winless team in conference play, yet the Golden Gophers were in control throughout. Ohio State on paper looks like the league's best team, but they have twice now been felled on the road.
It is clearly safe to say that nothing can be taken for granted in this league, as Michigan State is the only team that has dodged a loss so far. That likely means it is only a matter of time before the Spartans are shocked by someone.
I admit that I felt the Mackey Magic when I walked in last night. The crowd felt ready, but was quickly taken out of it. It wanted to explode all night and even got to a solid level when we had a big second half run, but we couldn't get over the hump to tie or take the lead and take the crowd to that next level where it carries us (though the short, gray haired official made certain of that a few times).
I had a lot of time to think about this game on the drive home last night. When I left make, it was a loss that had me stinging because it was one that was the result of missed opportunities. Ultimately, you cannot fall behind 22-4 at home, but the Badgers made the most of the opportunities given them at that point and we did not. We twice got within striking distance only to miss a chance to get over the edge.
Example one came in the first half when we were a quite pathetic 4 of 11 from the free throw line. That was ultimately where this game was lost. D.J. Byrd had five shots after getting fouled on a three-pointer and a technical was issued to Bo Ryan. He only made two, killing that momentum. Travis Carroll also had an empty trip to the line with Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson having 1 for 2 trips.
Wisconsin did not have such struggles. They finished a solid 20 of 24 from the line and Jordan Taylor, Ben Brust, and Ryan Evans were a perfect 8 for 8 in the final 30 seconds when Kelsey Barlow was matching them two for two. The Badgers also hit throughout the game to keep us at bay.
The second missed opportunity came after our 13-0 run cut a 15 point lead down to two. Hummel, Byrd, and TJ made quick work of it with successive triples, and AJ got it to two with a nice floater. Mike Bruesewitz was able to answer with his own three, however, and TJ but it back to three with a layup with 8:43 left.
This is where the game was really lost for us. At the under 8 timeout we had the basketball with a chance to cut it to one or tie. Ryne Smith passed up an open three off a curl (the type of curl he usually buries) to a more open look for Travis Carroll. I don't have a problem at all with TC taking the shot there. He has proven he can hit that mid-range jumper. He missed, but Lewis Jackson got the rebound. Ryno had another good look he passed up, and instead, TJ missed a layup.
Bruesewitz not only corralled the critical defensive rebound, he buried a kickout three on the following possession. With another stop Wisconsin came down and Brust hit another three. In a span of roughly 45 seconds we went from being down three with the ball to being down nine. We wouldn't get it as close as three again until there were two seconds left.
This was Wisconsin's game to win. They hit their free throws, hit every big shot, had great balance with five players in double figures, and built an early lead they were able to hang on to. Once again, we played well enough to win for 30 minutes, but had a key 10 minute stretch where we simply looked awful. There were still some positives as TJ had 16 points and was even a shocking 6 of 8 from the free throw line. Travis Carroll played a fantastic game with four points, eight rebounds (including seven on the offensive glass), an assist, and a steal. His effort was definitely there all night long.
Unfortunately, many of the same problems that have driven us mad showed up. I already addressed the free throw shooting, but the tendency to collapse on the drive and leave shooters on the perimeter was devastating, no more so than in that 45 second stretch mentioned above. We also refused to attack the basket for long stretches and settled for jump shots on a lot of possessions. Mrs. T-Mill said it best: We act like the inside of the three point line is hot lava at times.
What we have now is a virtual dogfight. The Big Ten title could still happen, but only if we get on a major run in league play with most of the contenders coming up. An NCAA bid is still likely, but we need to win 7 of our last 13 to feel totally safe before heading to Indy. We know each game is going to be a fight as well, so it is time to go one at a time and I need to stop looking forward so much.
Fortunately, we have this weekend off. This team is pretty battered with LewJack, Hummel, and Sandi Marcius all battling nagging injuries. Best of all, we don't need to travel for our next game next week, so that hopefully gives them more time in this multi-million dollar sports medicine facility we finished. Our 26 game winning streak may be history (and credit to Wisconsin for earning this one), so that just means it is time to start a new one. We still haven't lost two in a row this year, so I am confident that we can turn things around when the Hawkeyes visit next week.
This is still a good basketball team, but unlike in past year when our talent could give us an edge, we need to play virtually perfect in most games to win. three of our five losses have come in games now where we have had an awful 10 minute stretch, and the fourth was an awful 40 minute stretch. Only Alabama beat us straight up where we played fairly consistent throughout.