Opposing coach Lute Olson brings a squad into Friday's game that likes to run, and at 10th in the nation in steals can force its opponents into committing an abundance of turnovers (19.5 per game).
Each team talked Thursday about making its opponent adjust to its own style of play. For Wisconsin that means limiting the athleticism of Arizona by working in the half-court set and not, as Alando Tucker said, "playing into their hands."
"Arizona's going to attack us," said guard Michael Flowers. "They've been really successful doing that. They're going to run the tempo up and we've just got to be ready for whatever they give us."
The Wildcats have been spreading that high-paced scoring through four players who average double-digits. Senior guard Hassan Adams (17.3 points per game) will return to action after missing the Pac-10 tournament following a DUI charge. He rivals and perhaps even surpasses Tucker as the most athletically gifted player in this game, but Adams is certainly not the only scorer the team counts on.
Marcus Williams (12.8 points) turned heads this season as the Pac-10 freshman of the year, drawing comparisons by Lute Olson to Arizona all-time leading scorer Sean Elliott. In addition, Philadelphia product Mustafa Shakur (10.7 points, 4.5 assists) returns home to direct the offense in front of family and friends.
Olson calls Shakur a point guard who is long, quick of foot and can create problems defensively. He has been distributing the ball well and playing under much better control, Olson also added.
Rounding out the Wildcats in double-digits is 6-foot-10 Serbian import Ivan Radenovic, who lines up alongside another 6-10 junior in Kirk Walters. Radenovic is averaging 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, and although he respects Wisconsin's bigs, thinks he can utilize his quickness to get around them on Friday.
"They've got an all-around game," UW center Jason Chappell said of the Arizona big men. "They can hit from the outside as well as the inside, so you can't lay off them. You can't clog the middle."
Off the bench Arizona should use guard Chris Rodgers (9.3 points) quite a bit, in addition to Daniel Dillon and freshmen J.P. Prince and Fendi Onobun, who has been making progress since electing to shed a redshirt midway through the season.
Also gaining minutes of late has been sophomore forward Bret Brielmaier, who in some ways mirrors Badger Kevin Gullikson. Both are underclassman walk-ons from Minnesota who few people expected to make significant contributions. Brielmaier has averaged 15 minutes over the Wildcats' past five games.
But it is those athletic guards the Badgers will most need to keep under wraps. Adams in particular is adept at swiping the ball in addition to pushing it down the floor. They will likely attack the Badgers on both ends, and Wisconsin's success will hinge on how they handle the ball against the Wildcats' pressure.
"Arizona does a great job of extending defensively in one-on-one, on the ball, running some doubles, some jump-and-run opportunities," said Ryan. "Whether its called or planned or how they're doing it, they've done it.
"And they're opportunistic. There's one thing about getting a team to turn it over and another thing about turning that miscue into a bucket on the other end. Arizona does a pretty good job of that."
The key for the Wildcats has been staying consistent in the execution of their obvious talent. Many pegged them as the Pac-10 champion before the season, and of course those expectations were not reached. Arizona is just 3-8 against the NCAA Tournament field, with their most impressive win coming in a double overtime victory at Washington. But that game was played in 2005, as was an early-season win over a then-struggling Kansas team.
Since then the Wildcats have dropped three to UCLA and split with Cal, but did close out the Pac-10 regular season as winners of three of four. The Adams-less Wildcats then went on to beat Stanford in their conference tournament before falling to UCLA. Many of their conference ups and downs resemble those of the Badgers in terms of bouncing back from losing streaks after starting strong in Pac-10 play. And like Wisconsin, they are ready to get their blues behind them.
"I definitely feel like it's motivation," Shakur said of proving the current doubters wrong. "I wouldn't say we underachieved. Sometimes when you lose you may gain more than in winning. It really doesn't matter at this point. That's how we have to approach it."
They also hope to answer any questions about the Pac-10 being "soft." Adams said they can only talk with their game in regards to that perceived difference from the Big Ten, which is viewed as a rough and tumble defensive-minded style of play.
Olson said that in past years there have been too many petty calls made in the Pac-10 and that officials are letting kids play more now, in the hopes that they will not be at a disadvantage come tourney time.
"Our games this year have been very physical," Olson said. "I frankly don't think they're any more physical than we are."
As for the other perception, that the Badgers play a slow-down type of game, Olson was quick to implicitly point out that Dick Bennett has been coaching in his own conference these past few years, not directing the Badgers. Although Arizona players compared the two teams' style of play, Olson noted the marked difference.
"It's not like playing Washington State or anybody like that who is really playing the clock down," Olson said.
"I think our guys would prefer somebody who gets up and down the court," he later added. "But during the course of our season we've had to play a lot of teams that are half-court oriented."
Finally, it can be noted that the last time an Arizona team entered the tournament without 20 wins, they won the entire thing. The MVP from that 1997 Final Four, Miles Simon, is currently serving in his first year as an assistant under Olson. But this time around Arizona will be going against the experts' grain just by advancing at all.
BADGER NATION PROGNOSTICATION
We all know the story by now. The Badgers cannot hope to win games if they can't put the ball in the basket. What they do have going for them, however, is an Arizona team that gives up 45 percent field goal shooting. If Wisconsin can manage that Friday, history shows they should be in very good shape.
But where the team also needs to capitalize is on the boards. Arizona gets outrebounded defensively by a sizable margin but is athletic enough to crash on its own end. Against Indiana, putbacks were really the one thing that even kept UW in the game offensively. Obviously you get more putbacks when you miss more shots, but continuing that trend and boxing out the quick Wildcats will be a key.
Like Tucker, Hassan Adams has struggled from the line this season, shooting just over 60 percent. Late in a tight game Wisconsin would theoretically be advised not to foul Shakur or Radenovic, but who knows if Adams will step up considering the stage. Either way the Badgers certainly put themselves into position to win if they are getting to the charity stripe.
Each team might be playing with a chip on its shoulder, but Wisconsin has done a good job of forgetting its troubles all week, looking as relaxed as a team that closed the season on a high note, not by dropping four of five. If they can carry that out onto the court and get guys like Krabbenhoft and Chappell to be aggressive with open looks to draw out help from Tucker, Wisconsin could advance to the second round yet again. A big effort from either Taylor, Butch or Nixon would of course be of massive help as well. We like Bo to beat out Shakur in the battle of Philadelphian prodigal sons.
WISCONSIN 76 ARIZONA 70
Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is also keeping nightly blogs and features at creative sports writing site TheHeptagon.com.