CuseNation.com: Who are the players to watch?
BadgerNation.com's Benjamin Worgull : Just like Reggie Jackson for the New York Yankees in the late 1970s, senior guard Jordan Taylor is the straw that stirs the drink for Wisconsin. He's one of the most humble players a person will talk to, and he's also a bulldog and arguably Wisconsin's toughest player.
A preseason All-American and a mid-season candidate for the Naismith Award, Taylor ranks eighth on UW's all-time scoring list with 1,516 career points. Taylor has been asked all season why his scoring numbers are down compared to last season (shooting .034 percentage points less overall, .074 from 3-point range and averaging 3.4 points fewer entering the tournament), but the first-team All-Big Ten guard did average 16.3 ppg during Big Ten play this season, which was the best of his career.
What makes Taylor so good, however, are the little things he does that has helped Wisconsin win so much during his four-year career. He's owns a 2.99 career assist-to-turnover ratio (458 assists, 153 TOs), which is on pace to smash the NCAA record, and his defense was solely responsible for holding Montana leading scorer Will Cherry (16 ppg) to 3-for-14 shooting in the second round and was partially responsible for holding SEC leading scorer John Jenkins (20.1 ppg) to 3-for-13 shooting in UW's third-round win over Vanderbilt.
The pieces around Taylor have been vastly improving as the season has gone along – junior Ryan Evans has scored in double figures in 14 consecutive games, senior Rob Wilson scored a career-high 30 points in the Big Ten Tournament against Indiana and junior Jared Berggren's 60 blocks are third most for a single season in school history – but the Badgers are a much better team with Taylor plays composed and under control.
CuseNation.com: What are the roles of the complimentary players?
Worgull: With the explanation of Taylor from answer one, you will probably be surprised by this answer, but the Badgers are better when Taylor doesn't score 20 or more points a game. That's happened three times this season and the results were three low scoring, ugly shooting performances. The Badgers are 10-3 this season when it has at least four players in double figures and have gotten at least four players in double figures in each of their two tournament games.
Berggren is not your typical 6-11 forward, but he is a typical Bo Ryan post player – a big guy that can mix it up in the low post and have confidence to step out and hit a perimeter jumper. He's shutdown some good post players this season – see Ohio State Jared Sullinger's performance in Columbus in late February – and has improved his scoring average by eight points per game from last season.
Sophomore Josh Gasser hasn't missed a game in his career, appearing in 69 straight games (65 starts) and didn't let the stomach flu prevent him from playing 24 minutes Saturday. He's the likely heir apparent to Taylor at the point guard position and will handle the ball when Taylor is not on the floor.
What's good news for Wisconsin fans is that they are seeing players break out of some major shooting slumps to give key contributions in UW's first two games. After going 3-for-16 in his previous six games, sophomore Ben Brust hit three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points and 4 rebounds off the Badgers' bench against Vanderbilt. That marks his highest point total since scoring 13 against Indiana on Jan. 26, 2012.
Junior Mike Bruesewitz was 0-for-18 on his 3-point attempts since February 16 and held under four points his last six games entering the tournament, but is 4-for-6 on 3-pointers in the tournament.
CuseNation.com: What's Bo Ryan's offensive and defensive philosophy?
Worgull: If you ask some media personalities, they say Ryan's philosophy is to turn back time to when basketball is played with wicker baskets. With a ‘playbook stolen from a high school junior varsity,' Ryan's slow-down tempo isn't attractive to five-star recruits, doesn't prepare you for the NBA and so on and so forth. When you really look at it, those comments are comical.
In 11 seasons at Wisconsin, Ryan's teams are smart, efficient and consistent. How else would you explain that the Badgers have averaged between 1.008 and 1.158 points per possession in 11 years? Simply put, the Badgers' offense is designed to minimize weaknesses and emphasize strengths. This year, Wisconsin is a jump shooting team after losing four post players to graduation. It hasn't been pretty at times (honestly, it's been really ugly at times), but the Badgers enter Thursday having made 10 3-pointers for the second consecutive game – impressive considering Vanderbilt was one of the top 3-point defending team in the SEC.
Wisconsin's calling card – or why most people criticize them – is because of Ryan's defense, which has produced top 10 scoring defenses in eight of the last 10 years and is first in the country allowing 52.9 points per game. Wisconsin has held 13 opponents to 50 points or less this season and held Vanderbilt to 59 points, just the fourth time this season the Commodores were held below 60.
Ryan's players are a lot like him – tough, blue-collared, willing to work, not willing to give in and a strong desire to win in whatever way possible. It's a reason Ryan has won 651 games in his three coaching stops in his career and why the Badgers are 12-5 away from home this season. It's also a reason why UW won most of the 50-50 balls against Vanderbilt, because of its toughness.
CuseNation.com: Do you anticipate trends that have begun recently to continue against Syracuse/how do you see the team approaching the matchup?
Worgull: Wisconsin will approach this matchup by first digesting the 2-3 zone, something UW hasn't seen much of this season until Vanderbilt ran it in the final six minutes. I know one of their assistants was spending Sunday breaking down film of the zone and try to figure out how the Badgers can find success against it. The Badgers really don't change styles or personnel depending on their opponents (after all, they've had the same starting lineup all season).
Obviously without Fab Melo in the middle, the Badgers will try to find some production in the post – something that has been up-and-down all season depending on how Berggren (UW's lone true post player) is playing. UW will also need to stick to its rules and principles. One assistant coach told me previously that UW has been playing with a ‘paper thin margin for error' all season and against a team like Syracuse, the margin for error is even smaller.
CuseNation.com: What will Wisconsin have to do to make it to the Elite 8?
Worgull: It really comes down to making shots and sticking to Wisconsin's identity of playing sound defense. Syracuse hasn't been a scoring juggernaut of late – scoring fewer than 70 points in five of its past seven games – and appears to have had some streaky shooting in the tournament. That's been Wisconsin's season with the shooting, but the Badgers are hitting shots now and that's allowed them to have some room for error.
In addition to playing tough defensively, Wisconsin has to continue taking care of the basketball. The Badgers have led the nation in fewest turnovers per game in each of the last two seasons and rank second in the NCAA this season, turning the ball over just nine times per game. If Wisconsin can keep that number low and take away some extra possessions from Syracuse, the Badgers have a good chance to be successful Thursday.