Pushing his buttons
Doubters have driven Wisconsin's Taylor
Jordan Taylor has heard the words for most of his career, if not his life. He has turned the idea of proving to people what he is rather than what he isn’t into a cottage industry.
Where do you want to start?
Back to his days as an eighth-grader, when his AAU coaches on the Minnesota Master Gold team didn’t think he was good enough or big enough and cut him? All Taylor did was go to a competing Minnesota AAU team, the Stars, and help them win a tournament in Orlando, Fla., by scoring 28 points against . . . the Master Gold team?
Or a year later when he didn’t make the varsity as a freshman at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School and fretted over it before regrouping and refocusing? By the end of the year, not only had he made the team, but he was an all-conference point guard.
Taylor long has known what he has wanted. As a seventh-grader, he was asked to write about his long-range goals. Then a 5-foot-3-inch, 109-pounder, Taylor wrote: a Division 1 scholarship player who plays in the NBA.
When he takes the court for tonight’s NCAA East Regional semifinal game at TD Garden, the 6-1, 195-pound senior guard will be the key figure for No. 4 seed Wisconsin in its meeting against No. 1 seed Syracuse.
“He’s been told he’s too short, too small, too this, too that for most of his life,’’ said Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard, who recruited Taylor out of high school and has watched his development with a sense of pride and joy. “But he always finds a way. That will serve him well for the next 40 or 50 years of his life.’’
Just how well Taylor does his job will be an important element in whether the Badgers make it to their first Final Four in 12 years. Wisconsin (26-9) may not be the best team still playing in this region, but don’t bet against it - or Taylor.
Admittedly, Taylor had a better year as a junior, when he averaged 18.1 points per game, led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, and was a second-team All-America selection.
All of which led to great expectations for this season. However, his numbers in some areas dropped. With a supporting cast that was not as strong, he dipped to 14.7 points per game.
Some called him a disappointment, which no doubt stung. It also put the Badgers into a defensive mode when talking about their floor leader.
“There are very few players in the country that have ever had four years of what he has done for this team,’’ said head coach Bo Ryan. “Especially the last three.
“I know one thing: Our guys believe in him and trust him, and I like the fact that he’s on our side.’’
The key for the Badgers, especially in the one-and-done season, is that Taylor makes the plays that need to be made when they are needed most.
With 1:42 left in the third-round game against Vanderbilt, Taylor hit a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and give the Badgers a lead they would not relinquish in a 60-57 win.
“He’s been doing it all year and all of last year,’’ said guard Josh Gasser. “He’s the leader of this team and we want the ball in his hands at the end of the game.’’
Taylor relishes being a team leader and “go-to’’ guy, although this year’s team has had several players fill that role at different times.
“I’m just coming out and trying to do anything I can to help my team win,’’ said Taylor.
Presence about him
What comes out in games, in practice, and just in the way Taylor goes about his life, is the competitive nature of his personality. It was evident in his determination to reach goals in AAU and junior high. And it came out in high school as he developed into a player who drew more attention from the Atlantic 10, Horizon Conference, and Missouri Valley Conference than the Big Ten.
“Once you got him in practice and realized how competitive he was, how hard he played, how important it was for him to win, that’s what separated him,’’ Taylor’s high school coach, John Moore, told FoxSportsWisconsin.com. “Almost every day in practice, he was striving to get better. When you saw that, on top of the ability and skill he had, you knew he was going to be a pretty special player.’’
Gard first saw Taylor as a small, skinny junior in high school on a recruiting visit, but said he had a presence.
“Even though he was small, the one thing that jumped out was that he had aura about him,’’ said Gard. “Even though he wasn’t the leader of the team, you feel the older guys respected him.’’
Taylor took his own trip to Wisconsin and asked Gard what he needed to do to succeed.
“He asked me, ‘What do I need to do to play here?’ ’’ said Gard. “I took it as, ‘What do I need to do to play at this level?’ I said, ‘Work on your ball handling, your shooting.
“He stopped me in mid-sentence and said, ‘Coach, you don’t understand. What do I have to do to play here? I want to play at Wisconsin.’
“I gave him the same answer, but in the back of my mind, I said, this kid has a plan. A lot of kids that have a plan are definitely the most successful.
“That turned into a microcosm of what has happened here. He had a lot of people in Minneapolis who told him he will never play at Wisconsin. He will ride the bench his whole career.’’
Taylor has taken each slight as a challenge. He reacts that way even when Ryan or Gard throw different things at him in practice.
“He will kind of smile when we throw little jabs at him,’’ said Gard. “And he will simply win the next drill. He says, ‘I will show you.’ ’’
Even this year, when his numbers dropped and people criticized him, Taylor reacted with a goal in mind.
“He will take a challenge any time it’s thrown out and run with it,’’ said Gard. “He has grown in his leadership role the past few years.
“This season, he could have easily said, ‘This is my team,’ and taken all the shots, but the other guys wouldn’t have developed as well as they have, and we might not have been here.
“He sacrificed himself in some things early to make sure other guys got up to speed. It wasn’t something we talked about, but he looked at the personality of this team and said, ‘How can we be best in March?’ ’’
The Badgers are almost into April, and Taylor, naturally, has a plan to keep things going.
“We’ve got five guys on the court who understand what we’re trying to do at all times, whether it’s the eighth guy on the bench or the ninth guy on our bench,’’ he said. “We feed off of each other, and we just have to stick to what we do well and play hard.’’
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.