Either way you cut it, the idea of the Badgers coming to Chapel Hill, with North Carolina coming off a loss, does create an interesting and possibly uneasy dynamic. Whether UNC starts to doubt its own caliber or they refocus and fix mistakes will play a role in the energy the Tar Heels bring Wednesday night. But knowing the attitude of a team under Coach Ryan, this will be far away from the focus of the Badgers. They'll be preparing on improving their own execution of situations they'll face in each possession. Here's what to look for in the matchup.
I can't help but compare this game to our ACC-Big Ten Challenge game at Cameron Indoor against Duke four years ago. It was the most highly touted game of our preseason and we played an extremely talented Duke team with Kyle Singler, Gerald Henderson, DeMarcus Nelson and Jon Scheyer. Even Syracuse's quarterback wasn't too bad at hoops. We were ready for a huge signature win on the road to build from for the rest of the season. We ended up totally giving into Duke's style of play and got away from what we do best. Before we knew what hit us, we were down 48-25 at halftime. We basically got run out of the gym in front of a Crazy Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd (pun intended) that literally shook the stadium after big plays. However, I see several differences between that game and the matchup that the team faces Wednesday.
Most media members wouldn't give much chance to anyone coming into the Dean Dome and upsetting the Tar Heels. But here is why I think the Badgers can handle North Carolina:
The most obvious and important storyline in this game will be the contrasting styles of play. North Carolina is regarded as a prolific scoring team and is currently the fifth highest scoring team in the nation this year at 88 ppg. However, they are 25th in the country in efficiency at 1.11 points per possession. The Badgers – 7th in the country in efficiency at 1.201 points per possession and 81st in the country in scoring at 73 ppg. I favor the Bo Ryan school of thought and feel the points per possession statistic better represents offensive prowess. But North Carolina has the tendency to wear down its opponent and figure that the more possessions they get, the better chances their five-star recruits can outplay their opponent. The number of possessions in this game will be a clear indicator of who sets the tone.
Offensively, I think the Badgers could frustrate the Tar Heels. You put the best point guard in the country, Jordan Taylor, with guys like Josh Gasser, Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz who all have increased confidence from another year of experience, mixed in with the sharp shooting of Ben Brust and the slashing of Rob Wilson, and you have weapons and playmakers all over the perimeter. I think this team has the best drive-and-dish ability of a Badgers team in recent memory. You could see glimpses of this in the BYU game where Ben got free to unleash his lethal jumper off kicks from teammates. UNC will definitely watch that film and try to fly at Ben every chance they get.
From ball fakes and patience on offense, UW will find some driving room to get in the lane. From there, the length of the Tar Heels front line of Zeller and Henson will force pump fakes (which will bring a fist pump from assistant Coach Gary Close) and/or kick-outs to shooters spotted up. The decisions of Jordan and the other guards will be key in choosing to force contested lay-ups and floaters vs. finding the next open man. The Tar Heels could very well come out over anxious after a loss, extend their pressure and gamble on steals against a thorough Badgers offense (that is second in the country in 3-point FG percentage) that will break them down and make them pay if they take care of the rock. Having Jared Berggren on the floor, who's extremely talented and proficient scoring down low and can also stretch to three will make it tough for Zeller and Henson to hang around and time up for swats down low. How these bigs cover ball screens towards the end of the shot clock will dictate what kind of shots Jordan will get in this game. I would assume he'll be hounded by Dexter Strickland, as Marshall's feet were exposed throughout the UNLV game. I think when the opportunities arise, the Badgers can run with North Carolina.
I wouldn't tell my former teammates that they have been looking buff, to their face, but guys have made huge strides in quickness and strength and have shown the ability to get up and down the floor (cue Berg and Bruiser's fast break dunks against Bradley). However, a running match is what UNC loves. Roy Williams must have to play film sessions in slow motion to go over their fastbreak. As our coaches would tell us, the best way to limit a fast break is to take care of the ball on your end and take good shots. Nothing feeds a hungry fast-breaking team better and electrifies a crowd more than a bad turnover or bad contested three by the other team. Turning down a pretty good shot for a great shot has been a staple of unselfish Wisconsin teams and it's going to be critical in this game.
I think, generally speaking, North Carolina tends to be more concerned with getting shots up at the other end than locking down for 35 seconds each possession. The Badgers should be able to give them a dose of that. Four years ago, Duke brought a ton of pressure defensively, but they were fantastic at forcing you into several other defenders and causing bad decisions. The same strong help defense was not evident for North Carolina in the second half of its loss to UNLV. Even if North Carolina is able to speed up the Badgers, in front of a wild crowd, I think this team is capable of making the right plays and countering the aggression of the Tar Heels.
Defensively, the Badgers will have their hands full, but if anyone can slow down the Tar Heels, it's Wisconsin (No.1 in the country in scoring defense with .66 points per possession). North Carolina will be ready to sprint up and down the court when the gym lights come on. The Tar Heels get more fastbreak dunks than the number of times Roy Williams calls his players "youngsters" in press conferences. If North Carolina has it its way, the number of possessions in the game will be much higher than what the Badgers are used to. I would guess an extra fastbreak drill or two was added into practice by Coach Ryan the last couple days to prepare for the speed that North Carolina gets the ball out of the net after scores. A lot of the focus defensively depends on whether Harrison Barnes will be suited up. Barnes is a talent and the key scoring machine for the Tar Heels. His game isn't silky smooth or flashy. It's more mechanical and fundamental, and he could be even more rigid nursing a bad ankle. Assuming he plays, he'll likely be defended by Ryan or Bruiser, with Rob Wilson probably getting a crack at him as well. Barnes' counter moves in the lane separate him from a lot of players and whoever is matched up with him will be tested with their discipline to keep him in front and not be fooled on fakes. His shot is extremely tough to block and the Badgers are going to try to draw some charges if he gets a running start to the hoop. A lot of people are hyping up the PG matchup of Taylor vs. Kendall Marshall.
Marshall's shooting and scoring ability is decent enough to be respected, but it's not pretty. I think I saw more technically sound shooting form in my Verona Alumni Basketball Tournament last week. However, he's got incredible vision and is a great quarterback for the North Carolina break. I think a huge key to this game will be if the Badgers, and specifically Berg, can stay out of foul trouble. If not, freshman Frank Kaminsky will get thrown into his first road college experience in quite the environment (though some skinny, mop-top freshmen named Jon Leuer led us in scoring at Duke four years ago).
Zeller and Henson, and even Mcadoo off the bench, are extremely long and great scorers around the rim. The Badgers are going to try to front these two in the post, so weak-side help is going to have to be ready to knock away the inevitable lob passes. A couple over-the-back calls and charges early would help weaken the aggression of those two. After an open layup, the next option in the trademark North Carolina break is to find the post on the right block for an easy pin, turn and score. It's critical that Berg or whoever gets a body on Zeller to battle hard for position to prevent this. Wisconsin also has to keep shooters P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock from getting loose from deep. Dexter Strickland has not attempted a three on the season so look for whoever is guarding him to help off and keep Marshall out of the lane, and dig down more in the post on Zeller and Henson if/when they catch it. There's not a lot of design to North Carolina's half-court offense if they don't get an easy bucket off of their break, so if the Badgers can protect the rim and match up in transition, they could force some bad shots from the usually impatient Tar Heel team. North Carolina runs like anyone in the country and the Badgers MUST get back on D to limit as many easy buckets as possible.
I've had the opportunity to be involved in several of these highly-ranked primetime games in my career for UW, and I can say there is always an extra excitement in the air, in the days leading up to them. Guys tend to be even more intense in practice, lifts in the weight room are even more energized and the media members even ask questions to scrubs like me. The scout team is having fun starring as guys like Barnes, Zeller and Henson, and Coach Ryan will probably throw a few more wrinkles in the offense to surprise NC. I'm going to get out the popcorn and enjoy this game.
I love how loose and confident this group has been so far this year, and it's a direct result of how unselfish Jordan Taylor has been as the leader of the team. As a lesson learned from the Duke game four years back, the Badgers need to stay true to their identity as a team and ride their strengths instead of trying to beat UNC at their own pace and style. All of this is much easier said than done, and there's no doubt this will be one of the toughest challenges this team will face all year. But I'm confident in this group facing this hostile environment, and no matter what, it's a great opportunity for these guys to show the country what they're made of at this point in the year. The chance for a fantastic road win is there and these are definitely the kind of games people always seem to remember and recall. If there's any need for motivation, the media has seemed to forget the Tar Heels have another game before facing new #1 Kentucky on Saturday. But I don't think any extra motivation will be needed.