All week reporters asked both sides of the supposed perception of Pac-10 play: run-and-gun, but lacking in physicality. Wisconsin players had no comment on it, but Arizona certainly did leading up to the game.
Wildcat senior Hassan Adams said they would show on the court that they were aggressive. Coach Lute Olson added that, quite frankly, he did not think Wisconsin was any more physical than his own team.
Both of them were probably right. In a game in which both teams aimed to enforce their wills on each other, Arizona emerged both the aggressor and the victor, 94-75. Of course it happened right from the start.
"By far, I think we set the tone early," Adams said. "We were the aggressors, and that's going to be big in every game."
Arizona certainly played the up-tempo style people usually associate with the Pac-10. The Wildcats jumped out in transition and forced the Badgers to play catch-up, which was difficult given that UW conceded a 24-point deficit in the first half and Arizona continued to hit shots all game long. Whether you run a swing offense or open up the entire playground, that's a difficult task.
But the Badgers also got roughed up on the boards (UA held a 36-27 edge on the glass), particularly in defensive rebounds, where Arizona consistently struggled throughout the season. Arizona also took the initiative in swiping Wisconsin's pockets nine times, reinforcing the fact that they are one of the top teams in the nation at forcing turnovers.
Combine the two stats and the Wildcats were certainly not passive. They were also not afraid to throw around bodies down low and pick up some fouls, rather than let Alando Tucker get in a rhythm around the basket.
"We emphasized all week in practice that we needed to be physical and how physical the Big Ten is," said sophomore walk-on forward Bret Brielmaier, who scored 10 points and collected eight boards in the biggest game of his collegiate career. "I grew up watching Big Ten basketball (in Minnesota), and I've seen it firsthand."
Once the Wildcats built that large lead (35-11), they were careful not to let up their aggressiveness on defense. In the past two NCAA Tournaments the Wildcats had blown leads against Seton Hall and Illinois and did not want to see it happen again. Tucker believes that the fast start Arizona was able to get out to with hot shooting just boosted the other aspects of the Cats' game.
"What was frustrating was letting those guys get easy baskets," Tucker said. "I think that really turned up their confidence. Teams like that, Arizona is really streaky, and once their confidence gets going, their defense steps up and gets a lot better."
The Wildcats were certainly confident and they took it out on Tucker, who was simply overmatched all game long. He came alive in the second half in driving to the hoop but was battered in the process. If his defenders were soft, they did a good job of hiding it.
Meanwhile, Ray Nixon was the Badgers' surprise leading rebounder with five in just 22 minutes. It could be that Wisconsin had nothing to rebound, what with Arizona making 60 percent of its shots. But the way that the Wildcats were able to pick apart the Badgers, rather than be intimidated by them or forced into a Wisconsin half-court style of play, signified a possible shift in philosophy towards what Olson and Adams predicted.
For Brielmaier, who is expected to bring an all-out, rough style to Arizona, a physical game would seem to be the type he would thrive in. And it was.
"We talked about before back in Tucson that there's going to be 12 Brielmaier's out there — coach was joking around," he said. "It is my game — a little slower paced, more big fellas. I just had to go out there and try to get position as always, and just keep working."
It would seem then that Arizona not only made the Badgers play its game, but it beat them at theirs as well.