CHICAGO -- Ryan Evans' poor free throw shooting had become a semi-obsession. Wisconsin’s senior leader began to think about free throws throughout the day. And then again at night.
It wasn’t just his decline from a 73 percent clip his junior season to a 40 percent mark his senior year. It was the unpleasant feeling that seized his body every time he reached the charity stripe. It was the free throws that completely missed the rim. It was the embarrassment stemming from a problem he just couldn’t fix.
As the slump persisted, Evans lost confidence.
So coach Bo Ryan decided to pitch a few unconventional ideas to the veteran after Wisconsin’s loss at Minnesota on Valentine’s Day.
“Well, it was A, B or C,” Ryan said. “A was the jump shot, Hal Greer-style. Hal Greer [an NBA star in the 1960s] had a little jump [shot]. It wasn't quite as accentuated, for the older people in the room, as Ryan's is. Ryan's is his game jump shot. Hal had a little jumper, mini-jumper. B was Harlem Globetrotter, kick the ball in. Dropkick. You drop it down; you kick it up. And third was underhanded.
"So it was A, B or C. Ryan chose A. He's OK with it. His numbers are up.”
Evans was initially reluctant but eventually accepted the change. It’s certainly not a traditional approach, but it has helped. He’s 6-for-10 from the free throw line in two Big Ten tournament games. And he’s aggressive again.
“[Ryan] gave me the courage to go up here and try something new,” Evans said. “I think it's been effective to this point. I'm no longer shooting 40 percent. So I mean, it's a good thing right now, and I'm going to stick with it for now.”
On Saturday, he led the Badgers to their 12th consecutive win over the Hoosiers, 68-56. Evans finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, 4 turnovers and a steal. Jared Berggren added 11 points and three blocks. Ben Brust scored 12 points, and Sam Dekker finished with 11 points.
Evans helped the Badgers corral Victor Oladipo (4-for-12, 10 points), and he helped Wisconsin maintain its edge, even as Indiana charged in the final minutes.
Wisconsin fans cheered whenever he made a free throw. Twice in four tries.
The switch is an extension of the principles that guide Wisconsin’s program. The Badgers have a strong sense of their vulnerability. They’re not the type of team that can give one guy the ball and expect him to make plays without help. Wisconsin needs everyone.
One missed defensive assignment, one poor pass or one botched free throw could change the outcome of a game and the entire season. And the Badgers know it. So Evans tweaked his free throws to boost his team’s chances of overcoming its weaknesses.
Yet the Badgers are aware of their opponents’ limits too.
On Saturday afternoon, they understood they were playing Indiana, not the Chicago Bulls who had won multiple NBA titles in this building. They weren’t intimidated.
Not by Oladipo or Cody Zeller (Berggren’s defensive effort against the future lottery pick changed the game) or the NBA scouts who traveled to Chicago to see them play.
“It’s just the dynamics of our team. We can beat anybody, and we can be beaten by anybody,” said Traevon Jackson. “But when we play together, I think that we’re really tough to beat. And when we hit our shots and we do our defensive assignments and rebound, we’re a tough team.”
The Badgers closed the first half with an 18-9 run that allowed them to snatch the lead (34-31). The two teams were tight until Dekker recorded seven unanswered points (two layups and a 3-pointer) to give his team a 50-43 lead with 11:11 to play.
The Hoosiers responded with a 6-0 rally of their own. But Wisconsin’s defense wouldn’t budge.
Berggren blocked both Zeller and Oladipo in the final minutes of the game. Tom Crean’s squad went nearly five minutes (10:02 to 5:04) without a field goal down the stretch.
“[It] just means we have a bunch of guys that want to play and play hard. Kind of how college basketball has gone this whole year,” said Mike Bruesewitz. “I think we have had numerous times a change in No. 1, and I think it's going to make for a great NCAA tournament because I don't think a whole lot of 1-seeds are going to be making the Final Four. If they do, it's great, but it's a wide-open thing, and anybody can beat anybody on any night. We have to make sure we bring our A-game; otherwise we might be one of those teams.”
Indiana’s losing streak to Wisconsin was the least of Crean’s concerns.
The only thing the Hoosiers wanted in Chicago -- other than a Big Ten tournament title, of course -- was a chance to prove to the NCAA tournament selection committee that they deserve a No. 1 seed and a slot in the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis.
It’s no longer a guarantee after their third loss in six games. And the riddle that hails from Madison could be the culprit if they’re disappointed on Selection Sunday.
“My mindset is you try to win every game and take the next one as it comes, and certainly we would have liked to have won it,” Crean said. “But it doesn't undo what we have done to this point. It doesn't undo any of that. We have had an excellent season. There's room for growth; there's no doubt about that. But we would have liked to have played better today, no question.”
The Badgers rarely discussed the postseason implications of their run to Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game. They were more focused on showering and preparing to watch game film.
As players rose from their seats and reporters gradually left the locker room, Evans continued to answer questions about his free throw shooting technique.
He said coaches have sent him text messages to thank him for a form that their teams have adopted. He even joked about the jump shot free throw becoming a “movement.”
The awkwardness of it all? Evans isn’t worried about it.
“I don’t care what people are thinking too much,” he said. “If I care what people are thinking too much, I wouldn’t be out there shooting jump shots. But I don’t. It’s about knocking them down. It’s about getting wins. And that’s what we’re doing at this point. So I feel great.”