No time for idle talk today. March is here, and so is Wisconsin’s game against Montana. Let’s break down the key player matchups in the Badgers’ first tournament game.
Jordan Taylor vs. Will Cherry
Wisconsin and Montana’s best players both happen to be point guards. While Jordan Taylor was a first team All-Big Ten pick this year by the conference’s coaches — averaging 14.7 points per game while holding the Big Ten’s second best assist to turnover ratio at 2.5 — Will Cherry of Montana also earned first team recognition in his own respective conference, the Big Sky, while being named its defensive player of the year.
Cherry has seen elite competition this season within the Big Sky, mainly in the form of Damian Lillard, an NBA-caliber guard and Cousy Award finalist from conference foe Weber State. Lillard finished the regular season ranked second in all of college basketball with 24.5 points per game but was denied a bid to the Dance by Cherry and Montana in the Big Sky tournament title game.
Cherry is an athletic player, one who may pose a challenge to the comfort of Taylor in the Badgers’ half-court sets. Cherry is extremely active on the defensive end with his hands, harassing point guards with his terrific anticipation of the dribble, most likely the reason the junior registered 78 steals for the Grizzlies this year. The Badgers have struggled this season when teams have had guard personnel athletic enough to blanket Taylor off the ball, as well as recover on off-ball screens, an essential aspect for the Wisconsin offense to free up Taylor if a possession runs late in the shot clock.
As far as offense goes, Montana runs its offense through Cherry. He can hit the shot from the outside, penetrate for tough layups, hit a pull-up jumper and dish it out for open looks off his own penetration. If Cherry doesn’t have the ball or is being hounded off-ball, Montana will run a set that aims to specifically give him space to operate. While the guard is the leading scorer for the Grizzlies — 16.1 points per game — he’s also turnover-prone. Montana’s best player has registered 99 assists to 86 turnovers, giving him an assist to turnover ratio of 1.15, significantly lower than Taylor’s. There is also an ample amount of opportunities to step in and draw charges against Cherry (as well as the entire Montana team).
Cherry does a great job getting to the lane, causing opposing defenses to collapse on him when he beats his man off the ball. Montana does an excellent job spacing and filling various spots on the floor in response to Cherry and others’ penetration, resulting in many open looks and high percentage shots, making them a dangerous offensive team when Cherry is running free. If Taylor (and maybe Josh Gasser) can take care of the ball on offense and play stiff enough defense to stick with and frustrate Cherry step by step — something few players in the Big Sky were able to do — Wisconsin will have a definitive advantage.
Ryan Evans vs. Kareem Jamar
While Cherry is the headline of any scouting report on Montana, perhaps its x-factor is sophomore guard/forward Kareem Jamar. While measuring at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 205 pounds, Jamar is almost the same style of player as Wisconsin’s Ryan Evans (6-foot-6, 210). Jamar can handle the ball and penetrate the lane for Montana while being a solid offensive player all around. The sophomore from Venice, Calif., is the Grizzlies’ second leading scorer with 13.5 points per contest. Not only can he bang inside with the big boys, Jamar also has a soft touch from outside, shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc while registering the second highest amount of 3-pointers made on the team.
The best matchup for the Badgers defensively will be to place Evans on Jamar. Evans is by far the most athletic defender the Badgers have to offer, and Wisconsin’s junior forward matches up perfectly against Montana’s hybrid player. Evans will have to stay alert constantly, as Jamar runs off basic sets into the post only to drift back out to the arc. Jamar also has the capability of beating his defender off the dribble, much like Evans displayed on his thunderous, highlight-reel slams against Indiana and Michigan State in the conference tournament. However, Jamar also displays some impressive abilities to distribute the ball off of penetration, as he leads the Grizzlies with assists, registering 108 this season. In the Big Sky tournament, Jamar threw dazzling passes in traffic to teammates filling the opposite side of the lane he was driving, making him a multi-faceted threat with the ball in his hands.
Evans will have to use every inch of his length to close out effectively on Jamar. It seems like the Montana sophomore lacks an effective pull-up jumper in traffic like Cherry but enjoys rather the set three or set shot. Sometimes Jamar penetrates after drawing his defender wildly off of a shot fake when he is set beyond the arc. Jamar uses this pump fake especially if he has already hit a 3-pointer or two in the game. Evans will need to remain disciplined and keep his feet on the ground to contain the second most dangerous cog of the Montana attack.
There are a few analysts, like Doug Gottlieb, who are high on the Badgers falling victim to the upset bug in this game. However, there is one fact that should be put into play: The conferences from which the teams hail. While Montana has won 14 straight, its losses this season, especially outside of Big Sky play, are not something a giant-killer’s resume would contain. Losses to North Dakota and Oregon State aren’t awe-inspiring for a team like Wisconsin, which cut its teeth in the tough environments of Columbus and East Lansing. The Badgers are coming from arguably the best conference in college basketball. That toughness the team developed from the hard-nosed play of the Big Ten will be evident as the Grizzlies fall victim to the tested Badgers.
Wisconsin 72, Montana 56
Think Nick missed something in his in-depth analysis of the key player matchups? Will this game be closer than he advertised, or will the Badgers have the game on ice before the conclusion of the first half? Email him and let him know what you think at email@example.com.