ANAHEIM, Calif.—The Wisconsin men’s basketball team’s offense has already gone through the teeth of two elite defenses in the NCAA Tournament, but to reach its first Final Four in 14 years, it will have to go through the fangs of a defensive monster.
In its first game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin (29-7) faced an American defense that is ranked 7th in the country in scoring defense allowing just 59.1 points per game. The Eagles’ stout defense proved to be no match for the Badgers as the No. 2 seed scored 75 points on 50 percent shooting.
In the Sweet 16, Baylor put its zone defense – that had kept Nebraska and Creighton from breaking 60 points in its second and third round games of the tournament – up against Wisconsin. The Badgers shredded that zone for 69 points on a 52 percent shooting clip.
Now Wisconsin will face Arizona’s (33-4) fifth ranked scoring defense that allows just 58.4 points per game and held San Diego State to a 38.2 shooting percentage in the Sweet 16.
When asked to describe the Wildcat’s defense in one sentence, freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson responded: “We are tough, nasty and relentless.”
Wisconsin was able to consistently poke holes in Baylor’s offense Thursday night, but Arizona won’t give the Badgers nearly as much room to operate Saturday.
“They’re really long and athletic like Baylor, but they obviously play a lot differently from them too,” Wisconsin’s senior guard Ben Brust said. “They’ll get up to you and put on pressure in the backcourt. We’re looking to draw fouls and throw them off balance a little bit with early foul trouble.”
With a top-5 defense and an offense that averages 73.1 points per game, Arizona took the Pac-12 regular season crown and owned a No. 1 national ranking for eight-straight weeks.
The Wildcats are making their second Elite Eight appearance in the last four years and third under coach Sean Miller.
Wisconsin is appearing in its third Elite Eight and second under Bo Ryan. The Badgers have never advanced to the Final Four with coach Ryan at the helm.
Game at the Glass
Wisconsin has out-rebounded its opponents 106-83 through three games in the tournament. Six-foot-two junior point guard Traevon Jackson leads the badgers with 19 boards in the tournament. Sam Dekker is next with 16.
Arizona owns the glass, out-rebounding opponents in 26 of 37 games. It also boasts a plus-7.2 rebounding margin, the sixth best in the country.
“We take pride on our rebounding in terms of defensively and offensively,” 7-foot sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski said.
Highly-touted freshman forward Aaron Gordon leads the Wildcats at the glass with the most offensive and defensive rebounds and most double-doubles on the team.
“Gordon is an excellent rebounder and they all crash the glass really well,” Wisconsin’s freshman forward Nigel Hayes said. “We just have to make sure that we box every guy out and that we finish every possession with a rebound.”
Junior guard Nick Johnson and Gordon lead the charge for Arizona’s offense but, much like Wisconsin, Arizona implements a balanced offense with four double-digit scorers in 24 of its 37 games this season. The Badgers have had at least three players score in double figures in the tournament.
With a 1.49 assist-to-turnover ratio — 12th best in the nation —junior point guard T.J. McConnell facilitates the Wildcats’ attack that can fill a highlight reel in just a half with its high flying style.“The alley-oops and the athletes they have,” Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker said of Arizona’s offensive strengths. “It still makes you say ‘wow’ every time you see them.”
But the Wildcats scoring took a big hit Feb. 1 when sophomore guard Brandon Ashley, who was averaging 11.5 points per game to that point, was lost for the season with a broken foot.
Wisconsin has improved its offense during March, averaging 76.3 points per game in the tournament — 2.8 more than the regular season. And has become even more efficient, with a 1.84 assist-to-turnover ratio in its last three games.
But as it has all season long, Wisconsin and coach Ryan are not letting the allure of the Final Four distract them, but are sticking to the “another 40 minutes” mantra it has stood by since the tournament.
“We’re going to still try to get another 40 (minutes) and hopefully we can continue to play the way we have,” Ryan said.