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How the Wisconsin basketball team is 'connected' and winning games through defense

Brad Davison said this team might be the strongest team he's been on in terms of defense.

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Wisconsin Badgers forward Tyler Wahl (5) and Green Bay Phoenix guard Amari Davis (1) chase a loose ball at the Kohl Center Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Mary Langenfeld / USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The University of Wisconsin men's basketball team won the Maui Invitational, but it wasn't because of its offense.

There were multiple times in each of the three games the Badgers went extended stretches without scoring. Texas A&M started the opener on a 13-2 run. UW only connected on 33.3% of its shots in the second half, which allowed No. 12 Houston to close a 20-point first-half deficit. Saint Mary's led for all but 5:22 of the championship game.

Yet the Badgers won every game because their defense kept them in the games.

"I would say our defense turned into our offense," junior forward Tyler Wahl said after the win over Saint Mary's. "We couldn't really get anything going and then we were able to get some key stops down the middle of the stretch of the second half, and that kind of turned up our offense."

The Badgers are ranked ninth in the nation — first in the Big Ten — in scoring defense. They are holding opponents to 55.2 points per game.

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UW coach Greg Gard has addressed the team's strength on defense in every postgame news conference. Senior guard Brad Davison has said multiple times how impressed he is the team gels together, despite having so many newer faces.
"Everyone talks about how on offense you need five guys working together, but it's even more true on defense," Davison said. "You need five guys connected and working together."

The Badgers only have played six teams, but they limited then-No. 12 Houston to 63 points on 23-for-54 shooting. They shut down the Cougars in the first half, allowing just 20 points on 25.9% shooting.

Wahl was asked to define the team's defense in one word before traveling to Las Vegas for the Maui Invitational.

"Connected," he said.

"We understand what we have to do," Wahl said. "We're moving on the same string defensively, all five guys, collectively. I think that that's a really good thing to have, especially early on in the season, where in years past we haven't really shown that necessarily. But I feel like we have a pretty good grasp on what we're doing on the defensive end."

The Badgers allowed an average of 65 points per game during the 2020-21 season. They held their opponents to 42.3% shooting and 33.6% from 3-point range.

They're holding opponents to 38% overall and 31.7% from beyond the arc 3-point range this season.

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UW had its best defensive performance in Gard's time as coach when it held Green Bay to 34 points. Green Bay went 12-for-51 from the floor.

UW's most impressive defensive performances came in its semifinal and championship games of the Maui Invitational. UW limited Houston leading scorer Marcus Sasser to 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting — he averages 17.3 points per game.

Each player does his part. Wahl said freshman point guard Chucky Hepburn does a good job of starting the defensive pressure up front — and early — on the other team's point guard.

"When they can pick up at about half court and pressure their guy, it really lets everyone else kind of know, 'Oh, let's flip the switch and turn the intensity up,'" Wahl said.

The next group is the wings. Wahl and Davis are intelligent about how they defend, and Davison said they add a lot of the "intangibles" on defense.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said Davis' defensive presence was one of the reasons the Gaels couldn't regain control down the stretch in the Maui final.

"He's one of the best defensive guards in college basketball," Bennett said. "He can really guard. Then they went to him down the stretch and he made some big buckets. I came away from this tournament thinking I don't know if there's a better guy in this tournament than that kid."

Davis credited Wahl as a source of helping himself be a strong defender.

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Gard told Wahl in his freshman season he thought the forward could be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. Gard reaffirmed that sentiment this season as Wahl has improved, especially when it comes to playing aggressive.

"It's just knowing where to be and being in the right spot at the right time," Wahl said. "Both of us have kind of been here for a while. We kind of can get away with some stuff, so picking and choosing those right times to take a chance on something."

The centers, Steven Crowl and Chris Vogt, have more basic responsibilities in protecting the rim, blocking shots and fighting for rebounds. Both are 7 feet tall, but there have been some struggles with foul trouble.

Crowl and Vogt got in early foul trouble against Providence while defending second team All-Big East center Nate Watson. The pair had to sit out for a majority of the second half, which hindered UW's defensive performance. They also got at least two fouls in every game in the Maui Invitational.

"Doing it without fouling [is important] too because I've had to go sit on the bench and Chris, too," Crowl said. "Just being a wall up without fouling like Tyler did a few times during some games is big for us."

Multiple players said the key for the team has been communication.

"When we're out there flying around, it's just nice to hear chatter," Wahl said. "Then you know where your guys are, behind you, on the side, in a gap, that's just constant communication between all five guys. That's something that we really strive for, and that a lot of great defensive teams have."

Davison said this team might be the strongest team he's been on in terms of defense.

"We've done a great job so far for a young team, following our rules, following our principles and trying to take away the shots that we want to take away," Davison said. "Our team's been really quick learners, and there's still 30 more games to go. There's a lot more improvement to be made, but also a lot of time to get there."

© 2021 The Wisconsin State Journal

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