More than a week after March Madness launched, many Badger fans were left feeling surprisingly pleased with their team’s performance through the first two rounds.
After bringing down a sharpshooting Vanderbilt team loaded with seniors — a popular underdog pick for a deep NCAA tournament run — Wisconsin advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year. With the 60-57 victory Saturday, the Badgers now have a date with the Syracuse Orange, a No. 1 seed, to earn a coveted spot in the Elite Eight for the first time in seven years.
Prior to knocking off the SEC Tournament champions, Bo Ryan’s squad routed its first round opponent, 13th-seeded Montana, in 73-49 fashion. After stringing together two of its better performances of the year, UW will attempt to take down a deep and talented Syracuse team that will be playing without 7-footer Fab Melo, the anchor of its vaunted 2-3 defense.
Offense — 4 of 5
The Badgers displayed typical inconsistency, shooting the ball with a great performance against Montana and a rather unremarkable one against the more athletic Commodores. Sinking 52.6 percent of their shots from beyond the arc and just under 48 percent from the floor against the Grizzlies, Wisconsin’s hot shooting allowed it to build a comfortable lead early and score an uncharacteristically high 73 points.
Against a veteran Vanderbilt team that opened the game with four seniors on the floor, a team-wide effort left UW with a less impressive 41.8 percentage from the field and 30.3 percent clip from three-point range. Five players suiting up for the cardinal and white ended in double figures — Jordan Taylor led with 14 — in a game where forward Mike Bruesewitz scored at least 10 points for the first time since a Feb. 4 loss to Ohio State.
Wisconsin’s swing offense operated smoothly against an overmatched Montana defense, with Ryan Evans leading the charge with 18 points. Taylor complimented Evans’ offensive performance with 17 points of his own, going 6-of-10 from the field and 3-for-5 from long distance.
Defense — 4.5 of 5
Despite boasting a pair of seniors in John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor who average 19.9 and 16.1 points per contest, respectively, Vanderbilt’s two stars were held to just 22 points combined at The Pit.
In one of their best defensive efforts of the year against a deep, quick Commodores backcourt, Wisconsin limited its opponent to an ice-cold 26.3 conversion rate from beyond the arc and 43.5 percent from the floor. A team that, much like the Badgers, often lives and dies by its three-point shooting, the SEC Tournament champion’s long-range shooting was more than 12 percentage points below its season average.
Additionally, UW managed to control the pace and keep Vanderbilt from scoring 60 points for the first time since Feb. 22.
In their first-round matchup with the Grizzlies, the Badgers’ defensive numbers shone even brighter, as they limited the Big Sky Conference champions to just 49 points in the contest. Wisconsin — who ranks top in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering an average of 52.9 points — never allowed Montana to build a rhythm shooting the ball.
En route to keeping the Grizzlies below 40 percent shooting from all areas of the hardwood, forward Jared Berggren recorded seven blocks, setting a Wisconsin record for most blocks in an NCAA tournament game while anchoring a Badger defense that won the battle on the glass by a 37-21 margin.
Bench — 2.5 of 5
It was a rather unremarkable stretch among bench players for a team often criticized for its lack of depth, as the Badgers received only 22 points from non-starters in the wins that landed them in the Sweet 16.
Although streaky guard Ben Brust hit two critical three-pointers that helped battle off a surging Vanderbilt late in the second half, he accounted for all 11 of UW’s bench points. Senior Rob Wilson, the Badgers’ most consistent bench scorer lately, missed all six of his shots and was scoreless despite his 23 minutes on the floor. Similarly, freshman Frank Kaminsky struggled to find his rhythm and missed all four of his attempts.
It was a familiar story against Montana, as only two Badgers — Wilson and Brust — who left their seat on the sideline managed to create some offense. The senior guard, though converting on just one of his three attempts from beyond the arc, was 2-of-5 from the field and sunk all five of his free throws.
Brust scored his only points on a late three-pointer after the game was decided and picked up three fouls despite only seeing 14 minutes of play.
Player of the Week — Ryan Evans
After leading UW’s scoring effort against Montana with 18 points and eight rebounds, Evans followed up with 11 points to go along with five rebounds against the Commodores, doing it while shooting an impressive 66 percent from the field over the two game stretch.
While Taylor outscored the 6-foot-6 forward over the past two games, Evans proved more efficient with the ball in his hands as he continued to solidify his role as a great secondary scoring option to the Badgers’ senior point guard. Although his three-point shooting is still a work in progress, Evans went 2-for-4 from long distance against Montana and Vanderbilt on his way to scoring in double digits for the 14th consecutive game.
Evans’ effort on the defensive side of the floor may have been of even greater value than his offensive production, as he played a central role in anchoring Wisconsin’s stingy defense. The redshirt junior’s greatest defensive test awaits this week against a Syracuse team loaded with experience and talent.