Defending Wright

Wisconsin gets a second chance to make an impression on Indiana's sharpshooter

What do Bracey Wright, Vincent Grier, Luther Head and Alan Anderson have in common? They all torched the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team in leading their respective teams to wins over the Badgers this season.

Back on Jan. 8 Wright made 11 of 22 field goals in a 30-point performance to lead Indiana to a 74-61 win. Grier led Minnesota's 60-50 victory over UW Feb. 5 with 32 points on 14 of 21 from the floor. A week later Head erupted for 26 points on 7 of 14 shooting to help Illinois secure a 70-59 win. Just last Thursday Anderson was a perfect 10-for-10 from the field and 7 of 7 from the free throw line for a career-high 28 points in a 77-64 Michigan State victory.

The quartet's sparkling individual performances exposed a few common themes. First, all four are elite players, potential first-team All-Big Ten selections. Wright, Grier and Head rank first (19.2 points per game), third (17.4) and fifth (16.6) in conference-only scoring, while Anderson has led the second-place Spartans in scoring (13.3) during the conference season.

All four are veterans, with two seniors (Head and Anderson) and two juniors (Wright and Grier).

More importantly, all four present matchup problems for opponents with their offensive repertoire. They are scorers, capable of hitting outside jumpers or putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim. Perhaps most befuddling to UW, they can pull-up off the dribble and make mid-range jumpers.

"It's one more thing you have to defend," said UW senior guard Clayton Hanson, who had primary responsibility for defending all but Anderson. "If you have a real good 3-point shooter, make him put it on the floor and usually you are going to have help at the basket, but if they stop and pull up before the help gets there then that's an open shot. Not too many players have that, that game like those guys do."

Hanson and the Badgers get another shot at defending Wright tonight, when the Hoosiers visit the Kohl Center for an 8 p.m. tip. With the teams knotted at 9-5 in conference play, the winner will pave its path to third place.

It is no small challenge. Wright recently returned for an ankle injury that forced him to miss three games, including two IU losses. His first game back was a 1-for-8, 7-point struggle. Since then has erupted for 59 points over two games, dropping 27 on Purdue a week ago and 32 on Michigan State Sunday, in earning Big Ten Player of the Week.

Hanson, who will likely draw Wright again, is Wisconsin's best perimeter defender, a capable, fundamentally sound player who does all the little things correctly, more times than not forcing shooters out of their comfort zones.

What is more, UW as a team has, by-and-large, played well defensively. Exceptions to that rule include the aforementioned quartet, players who have made a habit of confounding opponents this season.

"We have been the unfortunate recipient…but they've all worked it and they've done it against other people too," assistant coach Greg Gard said. "We're not the only one they've put up those numbers on."

"It is just at times we have to be smarter on our reads," said forward Alando Tucker, who tried to check Anderson. "And we have to talk. On defense a big part of it is talk, communicating. One thing, [Thursday] we didn't communicate as much."

Wright and Head are big guards, 6-foot-3 each, who have a rare blend of ball handling and shooting skills that allowed them to get to spots, whether off curl cuts or dribble penetration, and pull up for jumpers.

"You just try to make them do something different," Hanson said. "The problem is once they get comfortable and hit a couple shots they are obviously going to be looking for it a little bit more. You just got to try anything to discourage them from getting easy looks, which sometimes is easier said than done."

The 6-5 Grier and 6-6 Anderson do not fit into any category. Grier is a ‘2' or a ‘3' and Anderson has played everything from point guard to his current power forward.

Grier hit a series of mid-range jumpers to drill the Badgers in the second half of their matchup in Minneapolis, while Anderson scored in every way imaginable. He shot over Tucker from various spots on the floor and when a bigger player, such as 6-8 forward Zach Morley, tried defending him, he blew past him and got to the rim.

"They have size, so they create a mismatch," Gard said. "If you put a small guy on them that maybe can handle them on the perimeter, quickness-wise, they are all big enough to either drive you deep enough where they can shoot over you or in Grier's and Anderson's case, they'll post you.

"If you put a bigger guy on them, now they spread you out and they're able to use their quickness and attack you, maybe get to more rebounds because they are…quicker to the ball."

Tucker is another player in the Big Ten who creates those types of mismatches, with the strength and athleticism to post up, the size (6-5) to shoot over the top and the quickness to make cuts from the perimeter.

Just as the Badgers like to exploit mismatches like the ones Tucker can create, so have their opponents.

"When you have players like that coaches, they use that wisely," Tucker said. "They set up plays with these guys coming off curls. When you have guys that can do that [make mid-range jumpers] that's just tough to defend."

"You have try to keep the ball out of their hands as much as possible," Tucker said. "When somebody is shooting like that you want to work him, make it tough for them and every shot tough… When a guy is in a zone like that, that is why you have to pretty much try to deny him the ball."

Advantage Wisconsin?

All four of the above mentioned performances took place away from Madison. Wright will have to try to duplicate his success in Bloomington, Ind., at the Kohl Center, where he scored just seven points on 2 of 15 shooting in a 79-45 UW win last season.

In fact, prior to January's outburst, Wright struggled immensely against the Badgers, averaging 7.0 points in three outings. He scored eight on 4 of 16 shooting in Assembly Hall last year and had just six points on 3 of 10 shooting in the Kohl Center two years ago.

This season Wright is averaging 19.4 points per game and shooting 44 percent at home, but those figures drop to 15.1 and 35 on the road.

"In any game we are just going to stick to our rules," Hanson said. "I think we approach each guy the same way, knowing their strengths, knowing their weaknesses and trying to defend the best you can."

Searching for consistency

Wisconsin's players and coaches say the key to their defensive performance is consistency, both in reading what opponents are trying to accomplish and in leaving it all on the floor each possession.

"I think we just need to handle a few things better," senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. "That just comes with time. Sometimes teams will do something and that will give you a chance to go back and look at it and make adjustments to it. We have to make adjustments in how we're helping, how we're getting through the screens. Just find another way to… solve that solution."

"It is not hard it just, how bad do you want it?" sophomore guard Kammron Taylor said. "You know, our coach says you can't bring it one day and not bring it the other.

"Myself, I have to learn how to bring it every day, not just one day or one game I bring the intensity for 30 minutes and then the other day, you know, I don't bring the same intensity. That is just one thing that myself and the team has to work on is bringing the intensity for 40 minutes."

What: No. 23 Wisconsin (9-5, 18-7) v. Indiana (9-5, 14-11)
When: Tuesday, March 1 at 8 p.m.
Where: Kohl Center (17,142) in Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: ESPN will televise the game live; Wisconsin Radio Network will broadcast game live.
Series notes: Indiana leads the all-time series 92-53, including a 40-31 edge in Madison. UW has won four of the last five games and has a four-game winning streak versus IU in Madison.

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