By Michael McAllister
Syracuse takes on Wisconsin Thursday in a Sweet-16 battle. We wanted to take an in depth look at the Badgers, their team, and how they match up with the Orange. So we utilized Phil Mitten, who writes for SB Nation's Wisconsin blog, Bucky's 5th Quarter
. Nation of Orange:
For those that haven't seen a lot of Wisconsin this year, tell us about the season they're having, their style of play, and something people may not know about this Badgers team. Phil Mitten:
It's been an up-and-down season for Wisconsin, but certainly the Badgers are trending upward. The surprise of the season was the unusually high number of home losses (4) compared to the team's ability to close out games away from the Kohl Center (12-5). In the end, a missed free throw was all the stood between the Badgers replacing Michigan State in that 3-way tie atop the Big Ten. Combine this Sweet 16 run with the miserable 1-3 start in conference and it's been a pretty remarkable year to be truthful. A lot of people don't see this team as being as talented as past Bo Ryan teams, but the majority of folks would have agreed that most of the returnees were unproven. It's been nice to see everyone stepping their game up at the right time.
Wisconsin averages only nine turnovers per game and plays at the second-slowest pace in Division 1 basketball (58.8 possession/gm). Both factors contribute to one another. You will hear about Bo Ryan's "Swing offense" but the Badgers don't even run much of it anymore, rarely posting up their guards these days. They've been a true perimeter-oriented team for the past three seasons or so, launching 748 threes on the year. Their opponents only have attempted 430 from long distance, probably because the Badger defense holds them to the sixth-lowest percentage (28.8%) in the land. Nation of Orange:
One of the best ways to beat a zone like Syracuse's is to shoot well from the outside. Who should the Orange be most concerned about from beyond the arc? Phil Mitten:
The Badgers have plenty of threats from long distance, yet they still battle inconsistency. Besides Jordan Taylor's 36% on 60-of-167 shooting, Josh Gasser shoots it at a 45.6% clip. Sophomore Ben Brust (55-of-143) hit a school-record 7 treys in a game twice this season and was most recently seen scoring 11 straight on Vanderbilt. Rob Wilson (38.7%) has sprung to life in the last 10 games and dropped 30 on Indiana in the Big Ten tourney thanks to 7 threes of his own. Even Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans (neither of whom I'd call a threat) have had their moments in the postseason shooting threes, going 8-of-18 over the last three games. At center, Jared Berggren has a ridiculous 118 attempts, but he makes 35.6% of them. Nation of Orange:
The Badgers had a couple of rough stretches this season, losing three in a row at one point and three of five at another, but were remarkably consistent otherwise. What has been the key to their success, and what happened to cause those slides? Phil Mitten:
Poor shooting was Wisconsin's downfall during the concerning three-game losing streak. They shot 21% on 3-pointers (and just 33% overall) in their 3-game Big Ten losing streak early on. And that really comes down to confidence. When the confidence was shaky, the offense ground to a halt. The team has had to figure out when to defer to Taylor at big moments and when not to. The Badgers tend to fall in love with the 3-pointers, and don't have a great inside game to fall back on during slumps. Iowa and Michigan State simply had Wisconsin's number this year. On the bright side, the Badgers can be so consistent because they take care of the ball, play very good defense and protect the offensive glass. Nation of Orange:
What is Wisconsin like inside? Phil Mitten:
Berggren has impressed all season long with his defense. He has a strong build and surprising athleticism (agility & vert). He played his best against guys like Meyers Leonard, John Henson and Tyler Zeller from UNC, in addition to shutting down Indiana's Cody Zeller in their first meeting. Berggren, like a lot of recent Badger bigs, hovers around the perimeter too much, and unfortunately Wisconsin won't gain any advantage with that against a zone. But he's out there a lot because he's got a nice-looking shot ... as long as he's not forcing them. Syracuse's zone will also take away his occasional dribble drives past an unsuspecting center. I'd say but his biggest contributions are blocked shots and deflected entry passes. Off the bench comes another 6'10" kid in Frank Kaminsky. He moves, dribbles and shoots well for a freshman his size, but you'll only see him in spot duty.
As a team, Wisconsin focuses on limiting opponent's offensive rebounds. Likewise, the Badger do not hit the offensive glass hard either. This is in an effort to limit fast break opportunities for the opposition. Berggren is just an average rebounder. The forwards are better in that department.
I would say there isn't a traditional power forward on the entire roster. Evans and Bruesewitz are versatile defenders at 6'6" that can adequately guard larger opponents, but also defend wing players. Evans has stepped forward as the team's No. 2 scorer, reaching double-digits in 14 straight games now. His development has been a very pleasant surprise this season. Bruesewitz (or "Bruiser") is the classic lunch pail/garbage hoop/hustle guy. Nation of Orange:
How will the Badgers match up against the size and length of Syracuse all over the court? Phil Mitten:
The short answer is not well. Defensive length and pressure on the perimeter has been a weakness for several years now. Offensively, Taylor has not finished well near the hoop this year and the Orange are not welcoming inside. Defensively I think Berggren and Evans will hold their own, but Syracuse might have one too many long, tall guys. Trying to match up with Joseph, Fair, Waiters and Southerland all at once is a tall task. Nation of Orange:
Have the Badgers played against a lot of zone this year? How have they faired against it? And how would they attack Syracuse's zone? Phil Mitten:
Wisconsin is not the greatest team to go zone against because their offense is already so perimeter-oriented. Northwestern probably runs it more than anyone in the Big Ten and Wisconsin got zone looks from Michigan and Penn State as well. Nobody in conference plays it too effectively however. Wisconsin shredded the Wildcats' 1-3-1 for four consecutive 3-pointers in January. Out of conference, the Badgers also shot BYU out of its 2-3 zone in an early season tournament. I think Vanderbilt caught Wisconsin by surprise the other day with the 2-3 zone look and UW clearly struggled finding the opening in the short corner.
If they can get the ball into the short corner, Evans is great at hitting that shot. Those are where all his points have been coming in the NCAAs so far. If Taylor and one other player are on from deep, that will be a huge help obviously. Certainly Wisconsin will be very patient attacking the zone if nothing else. And when Wisconsin hits shots, they are world-beaters. Nation of Orange:
Who are some players on the Badgers that could pose a problem for Syracuse? Phil Mitten:
Taylor can hit big clutch shots and absorb a lot of contact. There will be a guy -- whether it's Ben Brust, Rob Wilson, Gasser or Bruesewitz -- that starts canning treys out of nowhere. Both centers can pop 'em and make 'em. I think Bruesewitz can be a guys that slithers into that zone for second chance points. He tore Kansas State's heart out last March with his hustle. Berggren's play on both ends of the floor should make him a factor. If he disappears, Syracuse is in good shape. Nation of Orange:
What is the biggest strength of this team and their biggest weakness? Phil Mitten:
The defense is a major strength, led by Berggren inside, Evans on the wing and Josh Gasser chasing the best guard on the other team. As much as I hate to admit, Taylor takes it easy on defense sometimes. But we saw against Vanderbilt how effective he can be when he gives his full effort. Free throw shooting (74.2%) had been a major plus during the regular season, where timely makes down the stretch helped the Badgers close out some close road wins. That has regressed a bit in the postseason, but I'd still like their chances closing out a lead.
However, the team doesn't get to the line a lot unless it's salting away a win. The Badgers settle for too many outside jumpers, partly because of tentativeness. Sometimes guys like Gasser and Bruesewitz, even Berggren, just are not active offensive threats. This leads to a lot of passing around the perimeter and forced threes up against the shot clock. This gives me nightmares. Another glaring weakness we've seen is lapses in transition defense. Wisconsin can be exploited in this area by a running team (see: Iowa losses). Syracuse will undoubtedly try to get out in transition. Nation of Orange:
We all know Wisconsin likes to play a slow tempo. Describe why they utilize that strategy and how it's been effective for them. Phil Mitten:
The strategy is based on defense first of all. If you can prevent a team from scoring on you for the first 25-30 seconds of the shot clock, that is a good thing. And UW has traditionally been a very solid defensive team. Most people who complain about Wisconsin's pace blame the offense, but choose to ignore the credit the defense deserves. On the other hand, Wisconsin can be very deliberate offensively. It is hard to watch sometimes when they get complacent. But in general, their offense is still very efficient because they wait for good, safe opportunities and usually those outweigh a few spectacular opportunities they pass up over the course of a game. It seems to be working, as Bo's taken them to three Sweet 16s in the past five years. Nation of Orange:
What type of defensive team are they? Do they press at all or is straight man? Phil Mitten:
Wisconsin will only press if forced to do so, trailing big in the last few minutes of a game. Otherwise they will always be a straight man-to-man team as long as Bo Ryan is coaching. Oddly enough, Ryan pressed like a madman when coached at the D3 level and won all his national titles. This season they have been switching a lot on screens and for the most part it has been successful because of the versatility of the frontcourt players. Nation of Orange:
Will the Badgers use any zone given how Syracuse has struggled against it this year? Phil Mitten:
Not a chance. Nation of Orange:
Ultimately, how do you see this one playing out? Phil Mitten:
Wisconsin dictates pace as well as any squad in the country. It remains to be seen if they can do that against one of this season's truly elite teams. Part of me thinks that if it's a tight game, Wisconsin wins though. March is full of tight games. The hope is that Wisconsin is peaking at the right time, while Syracuse is still trying to overcome a bit of adversity. I guess we'll know within the first 10 minutes, because Syracuse is probably the only team capable of blowing out the other one. I believe people have overstated the effect of losing Melo, but if Berggren or Bruesewitz comes up with a big game, the Badgers can pull an upset.