Uh-Oh, Wisconsin’s Vaunted Defense Looks Gassed

Mike RosarioIt’s only November 15, but there’s already a problem in Madison.

13, 8, 13, 67, 6, 2, 49, 19, 56, 5.

Those numbers represent Wisconsin’s national defensive efficiency rankings under Bo Ryan since 2003, per Ken Pomeroy. (Ahem … defensive efficiency is a tempo-free stat that measures how many points a team concedes per 100 possessions, and Pomeroy adjusts those numbers based on the strength of opposing offenses.) The Badgers have been among the truly elite in five of those 10 seasons, and their lowest ranking, 67th, was still in the top 20 percent of all teams. Solid defense has been a Ryan trademark, just as much as the stall offense that shortens the game and frustrates opponents.

It’s still way too early to know exactly where the Badger defense will finish this season, but last night’s 76-54 loss to no. 10 Florida wasn’t an auspicious beginning. Billy Donovan and the Gators deserve a lot of the credit; Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario proved that they’ll be an exciting backcourt tandem this year, speedy on transition and totally fearless when asked to score. Erik Murphy finished 10-for-10 from the floor in the best game of his life, and the early 9-0 Florida lead was very unfortunate for Bo Ryan, who prefers to play slow and bleed the clock.

But despite the talent on the floor, Florida’s success looked far too easy. In the video below, I’ve isolated their scoring plays on the pick-and-roll. Throughout the clip, you’ll see the following Badger breakdowns:

1. Failure to cover the ball handler, leading to easy drives

2. Failure to cover the roll man, leading to open jumpers or dunks off the pass

3. Failure to hedge, leaving the ball handler open for a 3

4. Failure to initiate help defense in the post when a ball handler gets a step

5. Help from the wrong area, leading to open 3s

6. Ben Brust’s failure to cover Rosario off the screen, even after a decent switch (Florida ran this play a few times — a simple pick on the wing that allowed Rosario to drive down the middle on Brust, who was nearly helpless against the more athletic guard)

7. Failure to provide help defense when a switch leads to a bad post matchup

And while Wisconsin’s pick-and-roll defense was the most egregious weakness, I could easily have put together a video of poor transition or post defense. As of now, they don’t have the personnel or the system to match up with great teams, and that no. 22 ranking probably won’t last very long.

More than anything, last night’s game showed how much Wisconsin will miss Josh Gasser, the point guard who’s done for the year after he tore his ACL in late October. He made the Big Ten All-Defensive Team last season, and his absence leaves the Badgers exposed in perimeter situations like the pick-and-roll. Losing your best defender is bad enough, but losing him when the fill-ins at his position are noticeably weak starts verging on detrimental.

If there’s a bright side, it’s that Bo Ryan teams have a history of discovering their defensive identities after losing big away from home in November. The Badgers dropped a 74-61 game to Gonzaga in 2009-10 before finishing 13-5 in the Big Ten, fell 76-57 to UConn a year earlier before a respectable 10-8 finish, and lost 82-58 to Duke in November 2007 before winning the Big Ten with a 16-2 record and boasting the second-best defensive efficiency in the NCAA. Ryan knows how to build a team, and it’s not time to panic quite yet.

A system like Ryan’s takes time to sink in, but the loss of Gasser gives this year a different vibe, and the eventual recovery is less certain.

Filed Under: College Basketball

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere