MADISON, Wis. Turns out, the remedy for poor free throw shooting does not involve ceasing all attempts in games. As Wisconsin's basketball team learned earlier this week, you have to take them to have any hope of making them.
During Wisconsin's game at Ohio State on Tuesday night, the Badgers did not manage a single free throw attempt the first such occurrence in coach Bo Ryan's 390 games in charge of the program. Perhaps it goes without saying that Wisconsin lost, 58-49, as the Badgers settled for contested jump shots. Ohio State also made nine free throws in the 9-point victory.
Wisconsin center Jared Berggren said he couldn't recall playing in a game during his entire basketball career in which his team didn't shoot any free throws.
"That's something that's pretty rare," Berggren said. "It is definitely disappointing to not draw any fouls and not get to the free throw line at all. We need to do a better job of attacking the basket stronger and getting stronger takes, drawing some contact, getting to the line and hopefully knocking them down."
Players recognize the same lack of aggression displayed against Ohio State won't cut it if Wisconsin (14-7, 5-3) is to knock off Illinois (15-7, 2-6). The teams meet at 2:30 p.m. CT Sunday in Champaign, Ill., and the Badgers certainly can't afford a loss if they want to finish the Big Ten season in the top four for the 12th consecutive season under Ryan.
This season, Wisconsin is shooting just 60.8 percent from the free throw line, which ranks No. 337 out of 347 Division I basketball teams. Point guard Traevon Jackson is the team's best free throw shooter percentage-wise among the starters at 78.1 percent. But no other starter Berggren, forward Mike Bruesewitz, forward Ryan Evans and guard Ben Brust is shooting better than 69.7 percent. Evans, who has more attempts than any other player, is hitting just 39.8 percent of his attempts.
Bruesewitz said the Badgers' poor percentage hasn't made the team timid and that the team's shot selection against Ohio State was predicated, in part, on what the Buckeyes gave away defensively. Still, Wisconsin took 28 3-pointers and only 24 2-pointers. The Badgers were outscored 34-14 on points in the paint.
Over the past three games, Wisconsin is shooting 52 for 152 from the field (34.2 percent) and has heaved more 3-pointers (77) than 2s (75). The Badgers also have failed to reach 50 points in three consecutive games for the first time since the 1996-97 season. In the process, they have dipped to fifth place in the Big Ten, one game ahead of Minnesota and Purdue.
"We've had a couple rough shooting nights, but I think everybody across the country has had a few of those," Bruesewitz said. "We're not the only ones. We've just got to shore it up, combat that with getting to the rim and getting to the free throw line. Shooting a layup is much easier than shooting a 25-footer."
Wisconsin can take solace in knowing it played one of its better all-around games of the season during a 74-51 victory against then-No. 12 Illinois on Jan. 12 at the Kohl Center. The Badgers opened up a 14-0 lead and blew away the Fighting Illini. Wisconsin scored 30 points in the paint and drilled 10 3-pointers.
"I thought they had more competitive spirit in that particular game than we did," Illinois coach John Groce said this week. "They came out, swung right from the beginning. They set the stage for the game, dictating how it was going to be played. From there, it was played by their rules, so to speak."
Illinois has fallen on particularly difficult times of late, losing five of its last six games. The Illini began the season with 12 consecutive victories in Groce's first season in charge. Illinois nearly topped No. 13 Michigan State on Thursday, but the Illini lost, 80-75, after leading by 10 points at halftime.
"As my old coach Todd Lickliter used to say, confidence is not a magic wand," Groce said. "You've got to earn the right to be confident. And obviously we've got some talented guys. We have some guys who are struggling right now shooting the ball, and they've got to work their way out of it."
Wisconsin's players certainly can relate.
"You don't get more points for degree of difficulty, and sometimes we have a tendency to do that," Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard said. " We've got to make better decisions instead of taking highly guarded circus shots."
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