Wisconsin’s slide continues with loss to Illinois: What it could mean for postseason


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MADISON, Wis. — The Kohl Center crowd was on its feet, roaring with approval while hoping to push Wisconsin’s basketball team over the hump in a critical late-season home game against Illinois on Saturday afternoon. Badgers guard John Blackwell had just tied the score with a 3-pointer from the right wing to help erase a 7-point deficit, a sign that maybe this would be the jump-start the team needed after a dismal February.

But Illinois guard Marcus Domask quickly popped the swelling decibel level before it could rise any higher with yet another acrobatic and backbreaking bucket. He dribbled into the lane on forward Tyler Wahl, crossed over, picked up his dribble, spun to his left shoulder and then stepped through to finish a left-handed layup to give the Illini the lead for good with 5:25 remaining on his way to a game-high 31 points.

No. 13 Illinois held on for a 91-83 victory over Wisconsin that dropped the Badgers to 2-7 over their last nine games. It also continued to make the team’s midseason run — which resulted in the program’s ascending to No. 6 in the country — feel like a distant memory.

There’s no denying that Illinois presented a difficult challenge for Wisconsin from a matchup perspective, forcing the Badgers to play more small ball with a four-guard lineup than it had all season. Foul trouble to Blackwell and center Steven Crowl didn’t help. But the Badgers once again put themselves in position to win, only to come up short. And that is a problem that must be solved before it’s too late.

“It could go either way,” Wisconsin guard Chucky Hepburn said. “We’re in control of our own destiny. It can go downhill from here or we can only go up from here. …

“If guys want to come and show up and compete, we’re all there for it. So we’re just going to be ready. We’ve shown some growth. They made their runs and we came back and responded. But it was just that last run we couldn’t respond to. So it’s just a matter of how are we going to finish games out? We’ve got to figure out very quick or else, like I said last postgame interview, it’s going to be a quick March for us.”

Wisconsin’s slide began with four consecutive losses to Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan and Rutgers, the last of which was a 78-56 drubbing that gave the Scarlet Knights their biggest margin of victory against a ranked team in program history. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard told reporters amid that skid that he had reminded his players they’d performed at a high level for a lot longer than they had been subpar.

But if you’re looking for where the arrow is pointing on this season as March arrives, it’s hard to find the optimism outside the program at this stage. Wisconsin has beaten Ohio State and Maryland but also stacked up losses to Iowa in overtime, Indiana and now Illinois. In that Indiana game, a 74-70 road loss Tuesday, the Badgers went the last 9:01 without securing consecutive defensive stops.

Wisconsin’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which factors in points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent, is at 100.4 points. That is the worst mark for the program since the KenPom website began tracking the data for the 2002-03 season. The previous worst, 99.1, came during the 2017-18 rebuilding season in which the Badgers finished with a losing record and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. Wisconsin has individually strong defenders but has struggled as a collective unit to play with the level of execution Badgers fans have grown accustomed to for decades.

As it stands, Wisconsin (18-11, 10-8 Big Ten) still has a strong enough resume with 12 Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins to be an NCAA Tournament team. But the more Wisconsin slides, the more likely the Badgers will find themselves in the kind of toss-up first-round game that makes it difficult to believe this can be a second-weekend team — something that hasn’t happened under Gard in seven years.

“You just keep working away at it,” Gard said. “You keep pointing out the things that we have to get better at, and it varies from individual to individual. So other than continuing to teach and point out things and help guys get better, I thought in terms of the fight we played with, specifically guys that got the major minutes, it was good. I haven’t had to really worry about that. It’s a matter of the margin for error is so slim.”

Emotions were high as tipoff arrived on a day that honored former Wisconsin player and assistant coach Howard Moore, who received a standing ovation before the game as he made his first public appearance at the Kohl Center since a car wreck five years ago that killed his wife and daughter and left him with serious injuries. Several of his Badgers teammates attended, as did Moore’s son, brother and parents. Wahl said the atmosphere helped to spark Wisconsin early. But it couldn’t carry the Badgers to change their February fortunes.

“It’s not very often you score 91 against Wisconsin, especially in their building,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “But I thought we took advantage of the opportunities we had today.”

Wisconsin has two regular-season games remaining, at home on senior day against Rutgers on Thursday and then at No. 2 Purdue. That means the Badgers, who are tied for fourth in the Big Ten with Nebraska, face the possibility of closing the regular season 3-8 if they should split and missing out on a double-bye opportunity in the conference tournament.

It’s far from the way this season was supposed to go with so many productive returning players and the infusion of new talent like Blackwell and leading scorer AJ Storr. But the opportunities to fix what ails the team are dwindling.

“We play good basketball at times,” Gard said. “But we’re inconsistent. Some of that’s guys that get themselves in foul trouble. It’s contributions off the bench. We can’t lose water or momentum. I always say when guys come off the bench, we can’t go backwards. When you really get in the real trenches of these type of fights, it exposes those, the grit we need to continue to spread and build throughout everybody that steps on the floor.”

(Photo of Tyler Wahl and Marcus Domask: John Fisher / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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