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March Madness.

It’s a time for filling out brackets, decreased productivity in offices across the United States and enough college basketball to rot your brain into a gooey pulp.

This year, unfortunately, the unofficial national holiday of the NCAA tournament’s opening round of games (because, let’s be honest, play-in games don’t count) fall during class time for most college students.

So we will sneak watching the games on our laptops, smart phones and other gadgets while pretending to pay attention in class. Some of us may construct “fan caves” in our rooms with multiple televisions. Maybe others will sit in their rooms with the lights turned off and fast food delivery on speed dial, shunning significant others, roommates and family members for days in a blurry haze of buzzer-beaters and upsets. 

Well, maybe that’s just me.

This year, like so many, there is once again an air of hope surrounding the Wisconsin team’s tournament prospects. Battle-hardened by a rigorous Big Ten schedule and the adversity of losing their starting point guard before the season even started, Bo Ryan’s Badgers have somehow found themselves primed to make a run into March. But the question remains: How far will they go?

Well, that depends on the matchups. Who will Wisconsin lose to? Will it be the neurotic Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss in the team’s first game? Will it be a potential game with Kansas State and once-Illinois coach Bruce Weber? Or is there a chance that Ryan and the boys fall to the No. 1 seed Gonzaga?

As one of the Herald’s senior writers Ian McCue examines today, it all comes down to defense. But, more specifically, how well the Badgers can play man-to-man defense against more athletic teams.

The experienced Wisconsin spectator knows what I’m talking about. Last year, when the team lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Wisconsin allowed its opponent to shoot layup after layup, as the Orange constantly blew past the Badgers’ defenders for easy layups and high percentage shots.

How high? Try 55 percent from the field for the entire game. Yes, Syracuse was one of the most athletic, if not the most athletic, teams in the country, but the Badgers and Ryan took a shot and gambled they could somehow match up one-on-one with their talented adversary. 

And, truthfully, if it weren’t for the Badgers shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, they would have been blown out. Get this: Syracuse shot just nine three-pointers the entire game. Wisconsin? Well, they shot 27 of them- and made 14 of those attempts, making for one of the most thrilling games of the entire tournament.

Then there was the loss in 2010 to Cornell, where Wisconsin once again saw its season end due to poor defense. Sure, the Big Red were feeling it, but plenty had to do with the fact the Badgers’ defense was non-existent, allowing their opponent to shoot 61 percent from the floor.

The list goes on and on, but you get the point. With the Badgers’ offense in 2013 about as consistent as a politician’s promise, defense is what will carry this team forward. And not just defense, but matchups. Are there any offensive juggernauts that could maul Wisconsin like Florida did earlier this year? Yes, there certainly are, but not for at least a few rounds. With that, let’s look at the first round matchup.

Ole Miss is definitely a classic 12-seed when it comes to the tournament. They have the capability to burn you offensively, and Marshall Henderson is a big reason why. He’s like watching a little Energizer Bunny – he just never gets tired. But he’s wild and has a gunner mentality; something the Badgers should be licking their chops at. If they stay disciplined in their defense and junior guard Ben Brust has the same success chasing him like he has other opponents this year, Wisconsin should be able to force Henderson into a very miserable shooting performance.

After being forced to play defense for the entire shot clock, Henderson will be antsy to put up shots early in the shot clock. If he makes them and gets into a rhythm early, it’s going to be a close game. If he misses a couple early, this could be a Wisconsin blowout. 

Don’t worry about Henderson scoring – there’s no doubt he’s going to get his points. But, those points do come at a cost in the games Ole Miss has lost this year. Henderson has averaged 18 points a game in the team’s eight losses but he shoots a paltry 33 percent on average from the floor – a combined 45-for-136 from the field in games the team has fallen.

But Ole Miss has an inside-outside game that helps to even out the gung-ho play of Henderson. Wisconsin must remain leery of Ole Miss senior forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, two players who hound the glass for Henderson’s misses. Remember, Henderson focuses his shot by aiming at the back of the rim. That way, if he misses, the rebound is long, giving his teammates an opportunity for an offensive rebound. Maybe that’s the reason why both forwards finished in the SEC’s top 5 for offensive rebounds.

However, the Rebels have a few glaring weaknesses the Badgers should be able to exploit. This team struggles to get back in transition defense worse than any team from a major conference the Badgers have played all year. Wisconsin outscored Indiana in transition points when the two teams played in the Big Ten Tournament. Why can’t they do the same to the Rebels?

As far as the first round goes, there’s a reason Ryan is 10-1 in the team’s opening games of the NCAA tournament. The biggest reason is opponents from other conferences have rarely played a team as disciplined, precise, patient and methodical as Wisconsin.

It’s not going to be any different this time, folks. Wisconsin will break down Henderson and Ole Miss in a laughable manner Friday afternoon in Kansas City.

Nick is the sports editor of The Badger Herald and the Wisconsin men’s basketball beat writer. Do you think he’s wrong with his game predictions? Let him know at [email protected]

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