ANAHEIM, Calif. — Advancing in the NCAA Tournament is a tall order for any team in the country, whether it is a No. 1 seed or a No. 11 seed. For the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, advancing to the Elite Eight is its tallest order yet, literally.
Wisconsin (28-7) will matchup with a Baylor (26-11) team Thursday that sports a 7-foot-1 center, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-6 forwards in its starting lineup and two players taller than 6-foot-7 that average more 13 minutes off the bench.
The Bears use that length to their advantage when protecting the rim. In its run to the Big 12 Tournament Championship game, Baylor racked up 22 blocks in four games. Sophomore center and All-Big 12 defensive team selection Isaiah Austin led the block party with 18 of his own, breaking the previous record of 11 blocks during the conference tournament.
With the length of Austin and senior forward Cory Jefferson, who has 71 blocks this season, protecting the paint, Wisconsin’s frontcourt will have to find creative ways to get to the rim.
“It’s similar to a boxing match. Fighters say if the guy’s arms are longer, get in close so he can’t use his length against you,” Wisconsin freshman forward Nigel Hayes said. “That’d be the same for us. We don’t want to shoot fade away shots or try to shoot it over them because they will probably block that, so we got to try to go right through them and hopefully we can get some fouls drawn on them.”
Baylor couples its length with a zone defense that has turned up the pressure in the latter half of the season and was on display in the third round when it held a Creighton team that averages 79.5 points a game to just 55 in a convincing 30-point win.
The key for Wisconsin offensively will be patience.
“You take what the defense gives you. You have to probe,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “Then attacking it and getting people to move a certain way and using your angles and misdirection and different things that good zone offensive teams use, we’re going to have to put all those together. Because they have the quickness and they have the length inside to protect the rim. So that’s why it’s been pretty effective.”
Defensively, Wisconsin will face a balanced Baylor offense that can attack inside or from the perimeter.
The Bears are second in the Big 12 in three-point field goals made (257), behind only Iowa State, averaging 9.5 per game. Senior guard Brady Heslip leads the charge for the Bears from the arc, making 117 three-pointers this season — Ben Brust has 228 in four years.
An advantage may come at the free throw line where Baylor averages 25 attempts a game; however, the Badgers excel at keeping their opponent off the line, allowing an average of 14.9 attempts per game.
“They defend well without fouling and we usually do well when we get to the free throw line a lot during the game,” Bears senior guard Gary Franklin said. “So, knowing that they don’t foul or they don’t have fouls called on them a lot is something to look at.”
Wisconsin and Baylor had similar trajectories to a Sweet 16 berth in the West Regional. The Bears won 12 of their first 13 games; the Badgers won their first 16. BU then went on to lose eight of its next 10, but finished its regular season winning seven of its last eight. UW lost four of six and finished its regular season winning eight of the last nine games.
Both teams have a versatile offense that can attack from the paint or the perimeter and have a defense that can play with any style of offense.
With so many similarities, it may just boil down to desire.
“It comes down to who wants it more,” Franklin said. “Who wants rebound more? Who wants to actually sit down and play defense and wants to make the extra plays and the extra pass for your teammates to win.”