Turnovers spell doom for Badgers in losses to Richmond, New Mexico

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NEW YORK — Taking care of the ball is always a point of emphasis for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program, but the topic was driven home between the team’s two games at the Barclays Center this week.

A key factor in the Badgers’ 62-52 loss to Richmond in a Legends Classic semifinal on Monday night was their 15 turnovers. Given that backdrop, another sloppy performance less than 24 hours later would have been considered unacceptable by any team’s standards, much less one that lists valuing possessions as one of its core principles.

So what happened? UW opened its 59-50 loss to New Mexico in the consolation game Tuesday night with a turnover on its first trip down the floor, another two possessions later and four in its first 10 possessions. The Badgers had 10 turnovers in 30 possessions by halftime, and finished the game with 14 in all.

One word that came up from UW coach Greg Gard and his players after both games was “uncharacteristic.” Problem is, that may not be an accurate term to describe the situation.

The sample size is still relatively small, but it’s big enough to spot a disturbing trend. The Badgers (4-3) have finished in single digits in turnovers in only one of their seven games this season and they’ve averaged 14.3 in their three defeats.

UW has more turnovers (88) than assists (82) this season. That second number would be higher if the Badgers would have knocked down some shots in Brooklyn, where they went a ghastly 9 of 53 (17.0 percent) from 3-point range after missing 24 of their 26 attempts against New Mexico.

But while the bad shooting is inexplicable, the careless miscues are inexcusable.

“I thought we played too fast at times,” Gard said after the New Mexico game. “We got sped up, a few travels that are uncharacteristic of us that we’ve got to get cleaned up. But we’ve got to continue to reduce the number of turnovers.”

The Badgers have turned the ball over on 18.9 percent of their possessions this season. That would be the program’s worst mark since UW finished with 31 wins in 2007-08 — sweeping the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles — despite a turnover rate of 19.0 percent.

UW finished in the top five nationally in turnover percentage in Bo Ryan’s final seven full seasons, per KenPom. The Badgers dropped to 106th nationally in 2015-16, which included the mid-season transition from Ryan to Gard, and were at No. 67 and No. 71 in Gard’s first two full seasons.

There was what seemed to be a return to normalcy in 2018-19, when the Badgers finished ninth nationally with a turnover rate of 14.6 percent. But they’ve regressed, a development that is particularly problematic because there’s not as much individual talent on this roster as there was in Gard’s first few seasons.

In other words, UW needs to be as stingy as ever with the basketball.

“I think some of the guys, we think too much instead of just playing and the coaches try to harp on that,” UW junior point guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Just continue to play and not think so much. I think that’s what will propel us in the future.”

While he’s leading the team with 15.4 points per game, junior forward Nate Reuvers also has been the biggest culprit in the turnover department with three per game. Two others — Aleem Ford and Brad Davison — are averaging close to two per game.

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There was a revolving door in the backcourt in the first half against New Mexico as Gard searched for the right combinations. Among those 10 turnovers were two shot-clock violations.

The only players in the rotation with more assists than turnovers are Trice (22 to 9) and backup Trevor Anderson (9 to 1). Gard singled out Anderson after the game for his role in generating a spark from an offense that desperately needed it.

Gard even played Anderson and Trice together at times. The debate Gard has to be wrestling with is how much having Anderson on the floor impacts the defense considering the junior is a year removed from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

“I thought Trevor gave us some really good minutes,” Gard said. “I thought he played how a point guard should play. He’s still doing it on one leg and that’s probably more evident defensively. But I thought he increased the pace, I thought we moved the ball better when he was in there. He was attacking, he was finding guys.

“So we’ve got to expand upon that, too. As he gets healthier, hopefully, that can be more of what we can get from that position.”

Whether that was Gard trying to send a not-so-subtle message to Trice or someone else in the backcourt isn’t clear. What should be abundantly clear to the Badgers by now is they need to be more fundamentally sound and play smarter before their sloppiness costs them more games.

“It’s been something that needs to change,” Gard said. “That’s the biggest thing. We had 24 assists (vs. UW-Green Bay) before we came down here. The turnovers need to continue to be reduced. We’ve got to continue to work on that and point that out on film, drill it in practice and get better at it.”

Looking ahead

UW will play in the Fort Myers Tip-Off next season along with Butler, Colorado and South Florida.

The tournament takes place Nov. 23 and 25 at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida.

Fans take to Twitter after Badgers’ loss to New Mexico

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