NCAA Tournament Scouting Report: Wisconsin

Now that the Vanderbilt Commodores have won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in five years, they can set their sights on the goal they reached in 2007: the Sweet Sixteen. If the Dores expect to advance, they'll need to exhibit one virtue more than any other: patience.

NCAA Tournament Scouting Report: Wisconsin Now that the Vanderbilt Commodores have won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in five years, they can set their sights on the goal they reached in 2007: the Sweet Sixteen. If the Dores expect to advance, they'll need to exhibit one virtue more than any other: patience.
You could see the different body language. You could point to the rugged defense that broke down an inferior opponent in the latter stages of the first half and the first several minutes of the second half. On Thursday against Harvard, you could feel the transformed vibe that permeates now Vanderbilt's bench during a hugely important basketball game. This team is no longer the weak-kneed bunch that got slapped around, even bullied, by Tennessee on March 3 in Knoxville. This is the Vanderbilt team the Commodore Nation has been waiting for, and fresh from its conquest of the Ivy League champions, it now finds itself thrust into a game of high-stakes poker on Saturday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, inside one of college basketball's best and most cherished venues.

"The Pit" is the place where Jim Valvano and North Carolina State won the 1983 national championship thanks to Lorenzo Charles's dunk in the final seconds against the Houston Cougars. That was a Cinderella run in a time when there was no shot clock and no double-bonus on the tenth team foul in a half. In today's incarnation of college basketball, there really aren't Cinderellas precisely because stall tactics and endless fouling can't be employed by a new-age Valvano. Butler and Virginia Commonwealth experienced magic carpet rides in recent years, yes, but those teams were still legitimately good – better, it must be said, than the 1983 Wolfpack, who fouled their way to glory while their more talented opponents kept missing front ends of one-and-ones. Vanderbilt is a No. 5 seed, just one notch below the sixth seed N.C. State carried through the 1983 tournament. Yet, Vanderbilt is no Cinderella – not even close. Coach Kevin Stallings presides over a roster with big-league weapons and high-grade artillery. Seedings mean little at this point; what counts is that the Commodores are competing and defending at a high level. If they're willing to once again pay the price against a Wisconsin side that prides itself on gruntwork and toughness, they will advance to the second weekend of the NCAAs, announcing themselves as a next-level basketball program.

If VU wants to be seen as "next-level," however, it will have to work harder than it's ever worked before. The Wisconsin Badgers stand in Vanderbilt's way, and as you'll quickly find out, this is precisely the kind of team that will feast at the basketball banquet table and barbecue Vandy inside "The Pit" if the Dores' old and bad habits return to the forefront. The New Vandy is a superior team when compared to Wisconsin; Stallings and his assistants will need to make sure that the Old Vandy left behind in Thompson-Boling Arena two weeks ago does not re-enter the picture on a showdown Saturday in the Southwest.

WISCONSIN AT-A-GLANCE

The Badgers are nothing if not a relentlessly consistent program. This year, one of the Big Ten's steadiest and most reliable men's basketball schools needed an extra ounce of resilience to maintain its place in the college basketball world. Wisconsin rarely if ever lost in its home building, the Kohl Center, during the tenure of head coach Bo Ryan, a Wisconsin coaching legend (he led Wisconsin-Platteville in NCAA Division III competition and then D-I Wisconsin-Milwaukee before ascending to Madison) who took over the program after predecessor Dick Bennett guided the Badgers to the 2000 Final Four. Wisconsin established one of the best home-court advantages in the sport, the cornerstone of its consistency in the Big Ten Conference. Wisconsin had become a regular presence in the NCAA tournament, making the Elite Eight in 2005 and cracking the Sweet 16 on multiple occasions, most recently in 2008 and 2011. Entering the season, it was absurd to think that Wisconsin would become markedly frail at home, but in December and early January, that was in fact the case.

Wisconsin lost to Marquette at home on Dec. 3, and then absorbed a humiliating setback when Iowa defeated the Badgers at the Kohl Center on New Year's Eve. A loss just days later to Michigan State (on Jan. 3) handed Wisconsin three home-court defeats in a season and back-to-back home-court conference losses. The twin tumbles represented a pair of not-so-fabulous firsts for the Ryan regime. The Badgers held a 1-3 Big Ten record and an NIT-level resume after the first week of January. It was legitimate to wonder if this team could make the NCAAs. In that sense, the early-January condition of the Badgers was not that different from the pre-Marquette status of this season's Vanderbilt team.

In its darkest hour, however, Wisconsin answered the bell. Ryan got his players to block out negative vibes and rededicate themselves to the craft of winning basketball. Wisconsin stopped dwelling on its place of NIT-scented peril. The Badgers calmly took care of Purdue on the road to stop their freefall, and when they prevailed at Illinois on Jan. 22, they had risen to 5-3 in the Big Ten. A quality win over Indiana kept the resurgence very much intact, and at the start of February, the Badgers were 7-3, back in the upper tier of the Big Ten and headed to a solid fourth-place finish in the conference. This is not one of Wisconsin's best teams, but it's a team that has managed to pick itself off the canvas in ways that few other Badger squads have been able to do. It's a credit to what Ryan has built in Madison, and now his latest group of grunt-guys is in the round of 32 at the NCAAs for the sixth straight season following a 24-point beatdown of Montana on Thursday at The Pit. This is a team that, like Harvard, doesn't give away possessions or opportunities… only it's far more powerful and rugged at both ends of the floor. Vanderbilt put in a lot of hard work to beat Harvard; it will have to work that much harder to eclipse Wisconsin.

BONUS SECTION: STATISTICAL PROFILE

-- Wisconsin ranks 200th or worse in four basic statistical categories: points per game (63.9), rebounds per game (33.8), assists per game (11.7), and shooting percentage (.424). One must quickly say that Wisconsin's stats are one of the primary reasons why tempo-free stats (from the likes of Ken Pomeroy) play a necessary corrective role in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a basketball team. Raw statistics tell very little about Wisconsin.

-- Here's a stat that matters: Wisconsin allows only 52.8 points per game, far below the national average of 67.2.

-- Wisconsin commits only 8.6 turnovers per game, well below the national average of 13.3. The Badgers rank second in the nation in fewest turnovers allowed per game.

-- Points per possession scored: 1.07 -- sixth in the Big Ten, 33rd in the nation

-- Points per possession allowed: 0.87 - best in the Big Ten, second in the nation

-- Effective field goal percentage (shooting percentage weighted to include three-point shots): 49.9

-- Field goal percentage defense: 38.3 percent - second in the Big Ten, sixth in the United States

-- Three-point field goal defense: 29 percent - best in the Big Ten, seventh in the United States

-- Two-point field goal defense: 41.3 percent - best in the Big Ten, fourth in the United States

Starting Lineup

Forward/Center – Jared Berggren –
Junior, 6-10, 235 2011-12: 10.5 ppg, 5 rpg, 1.8 blocks per game

Berggren might not be what one would consider a star player, but he very much fits into Ryan's system. Berggren owns a sharp basketball mind. He tries to identify the way in which he can best contribute to his team's cause, and then he sets about his task with aplomb. Berggren was 2-of-9 from the field against Montana, but he made himself useful on the floor by focusing on his responsibilities at the defensive end. He plugged the middle of the lane and clogged the path to the basket for the Grizzlies, blocking seven shots and playing a major role in limiting the flustered Big Sky Conference champions to a 38-percent shooting performance. Berggren uses his body well, and for this reason, he will challenge Festus Ezeli on the low block. Ezeli will have a hard time outfoxing Berggren; he would be best served to go right at Berggren and use his combination of bulk and strength to his advantage.

Forward – Mike Bruesewitz – Junior, 6-6, 222; 2011-12: 5.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg

You might look at Bruesewitz's scoring and rebounding averages and come away unimpressed, but Bruesewitz is in many ways the prototypical Wisconsin player. He is part of the Badgers' modus operandi that began under Dick Bennett and continues today under Ryan. Bruesewitz is consistently relied upon to be the screener in so many of Wisconsin's halfcourt sets. It's also important to note that his place as a primary screener enables him to pop to the top of the key for an open three-point look; he hit multiple treys against Montana on Thursday. Still, when he's not shooting threes, Bruesewitz does more of the gruntwork than anyone else on a team that is expected to do gruntwork at all times. He throws himself into defensive assignments with relish and abandon, glorying in making hustle plays. Without question, he is the most liberated spirit in the Badgers' locker room. Bruesewitz's energy and work ethic are contagious; they breathe life into the Wisconsin bench and infuse this team with a winning mentality. If Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang can match Bruesewitz's energy level on Saturday, they will have done well.

Forward – Ryan Evans – Junior, 6-6, 210; 2011-12: 10.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg

Evans is a capable mid-range jump shooter, but he rarely steps behind the three-point arc. Only once this season has Evans attempted more than three triples in one game. He's a face-up player, so Vanderbilt should not expect him to try to back anyone down in the low post. Evans shot the ball extremely well against Montana, going 6-of-8 from the field, but he also committed five of Wisconsin's 10 turnovers. If Evans puts the ball on the deck, he needs to have space in order to get to the basket because he's not particularly quick.

Guard – Josh Gasser – Sophomore, 6-3, 190; 2011-12: 7.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, .461 3-PT%

Wisconsin team usually have a sniper, otherwise known as an especially lethal knockdown shooter from three-point range. Gasser is that man on this year's UW roster. Gasser hits just over 46 percent of his trifectas, and that makes him a player the Commodores cannot lose sight of. Gasser works well in tandem with backcourt mate Jordan Taylor, and what's also worth noting is that he snares over four rebounds per game despite weighing under 200 pounds. He works his way into traffic and, in true Wisconsin fashion, knows how to handle his body in the paint. All Wisconsin players are expected to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of setting screens and plucking rebounds; Gasser fulfills those responsibilities on a regular basis. His durability and his well-rounded game are so representative of the roster-wide consistency Ryan gets from his Wisconsin teams each and every year.

Guard – Jordan Taylor – Senior, 6-1, 195; 2011-12: 14.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4 apg

Here's the big matchup worry for Vanderbilt. Taylor took a lot of bad shots during the times in the season when Wisconsin was struggling; he clearly regressed from his dynamic 2010-2011 campaign, in which he took over games in breathtaking fashion. Taylor's inability to replicate his junior campaign – by all accounts a magnificent monster season – is why the Badgers, a No. 4 seed in the 2011 NCAAs, did not improve upon their tournament seeding this year. However, if Taylor plays at an elite level, the Badgers become more like a two seed than a four seed.

On Thursday against Montana, Taylor played at an elite level. In 36 minutes, Wisconsin's point guard scored 17 points, snapped down eight boards, handed out six assists, and – most impressively of all – committed no turnovers. Taylor exhibited complete command of the game's pace and total mastery of Montana's defense. It's true that Montana is not physically imposing, and it's even more true that the Grizzlies were not ready for Wisconsin's bewildering array of screens and cuts within the Ryan/Bennett offensive framework that has become a Badger trademark, but the fact remains that Taylor flourished on Thursday, and when a supremely talented player flourishes, he gains a great deal of confidence. Taylor is breathing the fresh air of swagger right now, and because of his next-level ballhandling ability, he will be able to create enough space to shoot as many stepback jumpers as he wants.

Taylor has to be taken seriously as a dribble-penetrator and creator, so the proper first instinct is to shut off his driving lanes. However, for that very reason, he'll be able to get some jump-shot looks in the early part of this game if he wants them. The ultimate fear for Vanderbilt is that Taylor will hit those early jump shots, forcing the Commodores and Brad Tinsley to overplay him at the top of the key, thereby setting up dribble-drive situations in which VU's help defenders will have to collapse, setting up kick-outs to wide-open wing shooters such as Gasser and Bruesewitz. Tinsley has to take away the drive first, but if Taylor is trigger-happy in the early minutes of this game, he has to make sure that Taylor doesn't create too much space for his shooting hand. It's not as though Tinsley should be expected to take away Taylor's shot altogether; that's not a reasonable standard. Tinsley does need to make sure that Taylor has to work hard for shots, ideally off the dribble in a halfcourt situation. If Taylor doesn't heat up, Tinsley can devote more of his efforts to ensuring that Taylor can't easily feed his teammates for open looks.

Bench

Wisconsin typically uses a seven-man rotation; that's what Ryan employed on Thursday against Montana before the back end of his bench was thrown into the game for garbage-time minutes. Rob Wilson is Wisconsin's sixth man, and although he averages just four points per game, he really needs to be treated as a significant scoring threat. Wilson scored 10 points against Montana, but on March 9 in the Big Ten Conference Tournament quarterfinals against Indiana, he went off for 30 points on 7-of-10 shooting from three-point range. Wilson is yet another Badger who is capable of hitting the long ball. He is not quite what one would call a devastating pure shooter, but if he gains any degree of confidence, he becomes a lethal force who has to be run off the three-point line. Ben Brust is Wisconsin's other main reserve. His minutes have been more limited in recent games; he played just 10 total minutes in two Big Ten Tournament contests, and he was no factor at all against Montana. However, he still carries an average of just over seven points per game into this matchup. He, like everyone else on the Wisconsin roster, needs to be taken seriously when the Badgers have the ball.

Keys to the Game

1) Contain Jordan Taylor.
When great shooters see the ball go through the basket, they flourish. When great point guards play a virtually flawless game, they make their teammates exponentially more effective. Jordan Taylor played an essentially perfect game for Wisconsin on Thursday, so there's a really good chance that he will take the court in Albuquerque with the right mindset and an abundance of natural, flowing rhythm. Vanderbilt must make Taylor uncomfortable, then. Wisconsin's best player will likely get his share of points and make a number of very impressive plays. As long as Taylor is prevented from getting to the rim and is prohibited from feeding his teammates for wide-open shots, Wisconsin will have to work very hard to score, and as long as that's the case, the Badgers won't be able to shape this game the way they want to. Wisconsin hopes that its opponent – on any gameday in any gymnasium – won't work as hard, so if Vanderbilt can stick with Taylor and match Wisconsin's effort level when the Badgers have the ball, half the battle will be won. Vanderbilt is not going to score easily against Wisconsin; limiting the Badgers' offensive output gives VU its best path to victory.

2) Patience and more patience. Vanderbilt enjoyed a profound matchup advantage against Harvard because of its size and strength. Those advantages won't exist against Wisconsin. Vanderbilt cruised against Harvard for portions of the second half and got careless in the latter stages of the game. VU's shot selection wasn't always prudent and its ballhandling – 16 turnovers – left a lot to be desired. Wisconsin will punish mistakes. The Badgers love to play impatient teams who give away possessions, because UW will make opponents work for all 35 seconds of the shot clock, shortening a game and thereby squeezing the time clock. Wisconsin plays a highly psychological form of basketball in that it sends an uncomplicated message to opponents: "If you don't take care of the ball, you'll get very few chances to score. Good luck shooting the ball; you'll only get so many good looks at our basket." In this way, Wisconsin plays the game in such a way that its opponents shoot the ball with a sense of panic.

VU, therefore, needs to be willing to make the extra pass and the extra cut. The Commodores need to shoot when they have good floor balance and can get back on defense if they miss. Vanderbilt must also realize that with Ezeli and Goulbourne in the paint, a missed shot is not the worst thing in the world; the bigs can attack the offensive glass and produce putback buckets. Vanderbilt must be prepared to miss shots against Wisconsin… as long as they're the right kinds of shots. If VU shoots 40 percent but commits only six turnovers and gains a plus-six edge on the offensive glass, that's probably not a bad outcome for the Dores as long as they hit enough threes and Jordan Taylor doesn't play at his best.

Perfection is not the goal against Wisconsin; making Wisconsin earn each and every point is the key to success against the Badgers. The team that's willing to work the same way Wisconsin does is the team that can beat Bo Ryan's bunch. The team that refuses to give the Badgers cheap baskets or easy defensive stops on bail-out possessions is the team that can allow its athleticism to do what needs to be done. Vanderbilt does have better athletes than Wisconsin, for the most part. Being patient enough to allow that athleticism to emerge is the true task for the Commodores in this high-stakes duel.

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