No. 17 Wisconsin falls in opener to Western Illinois in shocking fashion

Over the course of Bo Ryan’s tenure, Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent programs in America. The Badgers have finished in the top four of the Big Ten every year Ryan has been in charge, and are coming off of back-to-back Final Four appearances. Plus, Wisconsin had won every opener since Ryan’s first season in charge, a 74-69 defeat to UNLV all the way back in 2001.

All of this is to say that if you would have told anyone Friday morning that No. 17 Wisconsin was a lock to beat Western Illinois — projected by Summit League coaches to finish LAST in its conference — you probably wouldn’t have been crazy.

Well, the thing is, even results considered as “sure things” are often anything but, and there is a reason they play the games. That’s something Wisconsin found out all too easily Friday night, as the Badgers fell to the Western Illinois Leathernecks 69-67.

So how does something like that happen? In this case, the devil was in the defense. This one was well in hand early, as the Badgers took a solid seven-point lead into the half. But that was erased within three minutes on the back of a layup, a jumper and a 3-pointer. Then, midway through the second half with the game tied at 55, Western Illinois scored on four straight possessions for a 9-1 run and a lead that it would never relinquish.

Overall, Wisconsin just simply allowed the Leathernecks to score at a ridiculous clip. Western Illinois shot 54 percent from the field, including a timely 7 of 9 from 3-point range. That added up to a defensive efficiency of 1.19 points per possession for Wisconsin, a number that has been rare under a Ryan-coached team. Special mention goes to guard J.C. Fuller, who dropped 20 points, including 4 of 4 from beyond the arc.

Wisconsin has a lot of work to do after dropping a game to Western Illinois. (USATSI)
Wisconsin has a lot of work to do after dropping a game to Western Illinois. (USATSI)

Where does Wisconsin go from here? Well, undoubtedly Ryan will want to get his group better on the defensive end of the floor, as he has never finished outside of the top 25 percent of all teams in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. The way things looked Friday, that number could be in jeopardy.

But overall, this game just illuminates the job that Ryan has on his hands this season. Not only does the team need to replace Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker — two first-round picks in the most recent NBA Draft — but it also lost Josh Gasser, Duje Dukan and Trae Jackson, three guys whose departures just tanked the depth of the roster.

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig — the lone holdover rotation pieces from last season’s run to the NCAA title game — did their part, combining for 34 points and six of the Badgers’ eight total assists. However, without the aforementioend depth guys around, the Badgers are turning to relative newbies in Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter and Ethan Happ. Those guys, as well as the rest of the team, combined for 33 points on 32 percent shooting.

That — along with what looks like a leaky defense right now — is not going to be quite good enough this year if the Badgers want to continue Ryan’s streak of top-four Big Ten finishes this season.

If anyone can fix things, it’s Ryan. But it’s clearly going to be a long road ahead for Badgers fans while things continue to get ironed out.

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