Monday, March 27

Jim Polzin: Johnny Davis went from ‘lazy’ to lockdown mode and fueled a season-saving defensive stand

MILWAUKEE — Johnny Davis is a man of few words and a master of being blunt, and both traits were on display after Friday had turned to Saturday at Fiserv Forum.

The sophomore wing for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team just had been asked about what, if anything, changed defensively for the Badgers in the second half of their 67-60 win over Colgate in a NCAA Tournament opener that finished 19 minutes before midnight.

Davis arrived at a news conference after a cooling-off period and needed only 11 words to complete an answer that essentially boiled down to the Big Ten Player of the Year and consensus first-team all-American taking a shot at himself.

“Stop being lazy on defense and non-fundamental,” he said, “that’s all it was.”

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The response made UW coach Greg Gard, seated three seats to Davis’ left, chuckle and interject his own comment. “At least he’s being honest,” Gard quipped.

Davis overcame a poor first half to finish with a game-high 25 points for the Badgers (25-7), including their final 14 over a span of 5 minutes, 59 seconds.

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But this win wasn’t about what Davis did on offense. It was about what he and his teammates did on the other end of the court during a stretch in the second half that kept this splendid season alive for at least two more days.

It was as if a light had been switched on, UW going from giving up too many good looks against one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country to being in lockdown mode. And with Davis going from being lazy — his words — to being engaged and determined to shut down his man.

Davis at least once had committed a cardinal sin in UW’s defensive scheme by going under a screen. That gave Colgate’s Tucker Richardson a wide-open look from the right wing. Davis other times was a step slow in chasing Richardson, and that was all the space the senior guard needed to release his sweet-looking shot.

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Here’s how bad it was for the Badgers: Colgate scored 24 points on its opening 14 trips up the floor in the second half, a ridiculously robust clip of 1.71 points per possession.

Richardson made four 3-pointers during that stretch — the Raiders were 6 of 7 as a team at one point in the second half — and Davis felt responsible.

But then he locked in on doing his job and Richardson didn’t score the rest of the way. The Raiders didn’t score much the rest of the way, either.

They managed only eight points over their final 16 possessions — two baskets came after the game had been decided — and went 7:07 without scoring at one point.

“Tucker got loose a couple times; they weren’t going to let him get loose anymore,” Colgate coach Matt Langel said. “The game got a little bit more physical, as you would expect from Big Ten champions in the guts of a close game.”

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As is often the case, good defense leads to good offense and that was certainly the case for UW. Davis got going with a three-point play that gave the Badgers a 56-52 lead with just under 6 minutes remaining, and his textbook defense on Richardson led to an easy basket on the other end.

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Richardson by that point had gone from feeling good to feeling frustrated. Colgate had gone eight consecutive possessions without scoring, and No. 9 ended with Richardson forcing a deep 3-pointer and trying to sell to the officials that he’d been fouled, though he later admitted there wasn’t enough contact to warrant a whistle.

The shot missed badly and ended up in the hands of UW sophomore center Steven Crowl, who fed Davis on the break for a dunk that completed a 10-0 run that turned a four-point deficit into a 58-52 lead and led to the loudest burst of the night from a “home” crowd that was great from start to finish.

“They played a lot of close games,” Langel said, “and I think we saw the result of all those close games tonight.”

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Colgate finally broke out of its offensive funk, but Davis had an answer after back-to-back scores by the Raiders. He scored on a drive, made two free throws, drained a 3-pointer to make it 65-56 with 1:27 left and added a pair of free throws in the closing minute for good measure.

“That’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” UW freshman point guard Chucky Hepburn said, “and I love this last journey with him.”

Yes, that’s further confirmation from Hepburn that Davis’ second season at UW will be his last one and he’ll be off to the NBA whenever this postseason ends for the Badgers.

I heard grumbling behind me in the stands Friday night and have seen similar comments on social media over the past couple weeks. The gist: Johnny isn’t ready for the NBA and should come back to UW for one more season.

Not happening, so enjoy this ride while it lasts. Second-half Johnny, the one who was great on both ends of the court, can carry the Badgers a long way in this tournament. Lazy won’t cut it from here on out.

Contact Jim Polzin at [email protected]

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