By Jake McCormick
Another unexpected winning season for the Wisconsin Badgers ends with another early exit from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of a lower seeded mid-major. Cornell personified the Badgers’ worst nightmare as a team that lives and dies by first-opportunity jump shots, but the embarrassing 87-69 loss shouldn’t supersede Wisconsin’s over-achievements.
The end of the first half was a snapshot of everything that was frustrating about the Big Red’s general dominance. The Badgers committed a turnover to give the Big Red 34.1 seconds to extend their lead back to double digits. After a few passes around the perimeter, Cornell forward Ryan Wittman hit a jumper 18 feet out with 3 seconds left. A Badger defender was correctly positioned to contest the shot, but anyone who had watched the other 19:57 of the first half knew it was going in the second Wittman elevated for his release.
Most Badger losses are frustratingly similar (slow offensive start, uninspiring defense, low three point shooting percentage), but losing to Cornell was ugly on an Amy Winehouse mugshot level. By the 13 minute mark in the second half, I found myself much more interested in watching the final round of the PGA Transition’s Championship. Wisconsin’s season ended in similar fashion to the Grizzly Man (a brutal mauling that overshadowed unexpected success).
Cornell’s beat down exposed the pretty well-known fact that Wisconsin basketball bears a strong resemblance to a women’s game. The Badgers win games by preventing shots and playing fundamental, slowed-tempo and low turnover basketball. They gave up 59 points per game on average during the regular season, and are routinely incapable of reaching the 70s themselves. So what happens when Wisconsin commits six first-half turnovers? They make me resent pasty white Ivy League underdogs that play stingy defense and have three players that shoot between 40 and 50% from beyond the arc.
There were points where it really felt like Stephen Curry decided to clone himself a few times and return to the college ranks in a Cornell uniform. The Big Red capitalized off of every inch of daylight they could muster for a shot, and they fell at a 61% clip against a Badger defense that was flogged mercilessly on almost every possession. The Nard-dog’s alma mater deserves all the credit in the world for beating one of the best and most experienced defenses in college basketball, no matter how tough it is to swallow the pill of defeat.
Still, the 2009-10 season should be considered a success in Madison because the team unquestionably exceeded everyone’s expectations. Wisconsin entered the season without star power, much size down low, and an improved Big Ten conference. The senior leadership of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, as well as the versatility of Jon Leuer, served as Bo Ryan’s annual reminder to college basketball that it should never sleep on his Wisconsin Badgers. As hideous as the loss to Cornell was, it’s always comforting to know that the team will be dancing again next March.