STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -Wisconsin men’s basketball assistant Dean Oliver was driving home after UW’s loss to Minnesota when his phone lit up with text messages.
The sender was sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice. After struggling on both ends of the floor in losses to Western Kentucky and Minnesota, Trice felt he needed to reach out for extra help.
According to Oliver, Trice wrote: “Hey coach, what do I need to do? Why are these things happening?”
“He recognizes it,” Oliver said.
Getting Trice back to playing efficient basketball on both ends of the court is one of the tasks facing the UW staff as the Badgers (10-4, 2-1 Big Ten) prepare to play host Penn State (7-7, 0-3) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
“Rough film session,” sophomore guard Brad Davison said after the team’s Friday practice. “Coach got on us pretty good. There were a lot of missed opportunities, mental lapses.
“Penn State is not going to feel sorry for us. We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves.”
Penn State will be without head coach Patrick Chambers, who is serving a one-game suspension. Chambers pushed a Penn State player during a timeout in the Nittany Lions’ loss Thursday at Michigan.
UW’s recent issues are several, beginning with the play of Trice.
Trice has hit just 4 of 17 three-pointers (23.5 percent) in the last three games, but the staff is focused more on the defensive breakdowns and turnovers.
Trice struggled defensively against Western Kentucky and Minnesota. He had just one assist and four turnovers in the loss to Minnesota, with two of the turnovers coming in the final two minutes.
“The concentration level isn’t there when those things happen,” Oliver said. “You’re not focused on the right things. You get caught ball watching. You’re not active.
“Those are the things he can eliminate completely. Honestly, he’s just got to get refocused.”
UW’s defensive execution was much better against Minnesota than it had been at Western Kentucky.
The Gophers shot just 43.8 percent and got only 11 of their 59 points from the free-throw line (18.6 percent). They entered the night getting 25.3 percent of their points from the line.
But UW hit just 6 of 26 field-goal attempts and managed just 14 points in the opening half in falling behind by 15 points.
Ethan Happ and Nate Reuvers combined to hit 12 of 23 shots overall; their teammates combined to hit 8 of 25.
One player who should be able to provide more scoring is freshman Kobe King.
King is shooting 37 percent from three-point range (10 of 27) and 50 percent overall (28 of 56). He rarely hunts his shot, however, preferring instead to defer to older teammates.
“Sometimes I play too tense at times, worried about making mistakes,” King acknowledged. “Obviously, you want to be in the game so you try to do the right things. You can get kind of robotic.
“It is just in my head and it’s something I am going to have to get over.”
UW must also get to the free-throw line more frequently and convert. The Badgers had just 11 attempts in the loss to Western Kentucky and 17 against Minnesota – all in the second half. The Badgers hit just 7 of 17 attempts against the Gophers.
“We were there 17 times in the second half,” head coach Greg Gard said of the loss to Minnesota. “We’ve got to be there 17 times in the first half, too.
“That is a mentality and aggressiveness at the rim we need to continue to evolve and get better with.”
Big Ten teams entered the weekend 103-12 at home and 14-28 on the road.
Penn State is 5-1 at home this season. The Nittany Lions’ best victory was a 63-62 decision over visiting Virginia Tech.The Hokies entered the weekend 11-1 and ranked No. 10 in both top 25 polls.
The loss to Minnesota makes this trip to State College critical.
“Any time you lose at home you feel like you’ve got to go steal some on the road,” Happ said. “If we would have been 3-0 going into this … it is almost a must win.
“It is obviously early in the Big Ten season so it is hard to say it is a must win but for us, that is what it feels like.”