Badgers Ready To Slug it Out

UW hopes to avenge the past on Saturday against a similar opponent in No. 2 Pittsburgh

On the surface, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 2 Pittsburgh seem to have a lot in common. Both schools have settled into the disciplined systems instilled by their respectively successful coaches. No matter the players wearing the jerseys, you typically know what you're in for.

Both programs emphasize hard-nosed defense, toughness and minimizing mistakes. In 2006 you will find both teams within the Top 25 in the nation in offensive efficiency, as measured by stat guru Ken Pomeroy.

Both coaches have experienced conference titles and tournament runs. They are expected to compete for such again in 2007.

They both feature a preseason conference player of the year and they both like to rely on a deep rotation. But when you boil it all down, there still is one big difference:

Pittsburgh has had Wisconsin's number.

"I always keep things in the back of my head when I'm playing," said Alando Tucker.

What might be rattling around there Saturday are two things. First, watching the third-seeded Panthers outmuscle Wisconsin in a 59-55 second round game at the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Tucker sat that year with a medical redshirt, and no doubt would have liked to be on the floor as the sixth-seeded Badgers fell in Milwaukee to a team many expected might earn a one-seed that season.

Then there was last December, when Tucker did get a chance to avenge the Badgers against Carl Krauser and company on Pitt's home floor. Again, however, it was the Panthers that set the tone and handled Wisconsin, 73-64.

"I was disappointed in the loss at Pitt," Tucker said. "I felt we could have won that game. It was a very winnable game. I have that locked back, stored back in the back of my mind."

Wisconsin (10-1) holds an edge in the series history, taking 10 of the 17 games these two schools have played. But with Pittsburgh (10-0) capturing the last three, including two during the career of the current senior class, there is no doubt the UW veterans relish a chance for the last word.

To make that happen, they will be forced to do what both teams are known for – and do it better than their visiting opponents.

"No," punctuated Bo Ryan, when asked if his team lined up well with the Panthers in the previous contests. "I didn't think we matched up real well physically the last two times we've played."

That will start down low with Big East preseason player of the year Aaron Gray. Gray got into foul trouble in last year's contest, but figures to play a much bigger role this time around with Krauser gone.

Gray (16.8 ppg) leads a balanced attack that returns four starters from a year ago and gained East Carolina transfer Mike Cook – second on the team with 11.6 points per contest.

The game plan for the Panthers is to work the ball down low to the 7-foot, 270-pound Gray, who likes to operate mostly around the rim and has connected on a whopping 64 percent of his shots this season.

From there Pitt can work the ball out to its wings and beat teams with the long ball. They are averaging 39.2 percent from 3-point this season, in large part to the sharpshooting of Antonio Graves and former starter turned sixth-man, Ronald Ramon.

"You have to stay on your toes," Tucker said. "Every guy, you have to be able to defend all five guys. There's not a guy on their team that we can help off more than one other guy."

Much like a strong start from Tucker lifts his entire team and opens up additional opportunities for players, limiting Gray early on figures to significantly hurt Pittsburgh's offense.

UW has more bodies to throw at Gray this season – with Jason Chappell and Greg Steimsma figuring to be the two bigs who will log the most minutes on him. Chappell will provide the quick feet and Steimsma the muscle in trying to deny Gray the ball or force him out of his comfort zone.

"He's huge," Chappell said. "You go and try to box him out or move him in the post, he's not going anywhere.

"I can't go trying to outmuscle him because it's not going to work. So I've definitely got to try to use quickness and get around him and try to deny him by using position rather than strength."

While the Panthers are probably equally as careful about how they plan to limit Tucker's influence, stopping the primary scorer is not all the two teams share in their game plans.

"They're a lot like us," said Kammron Taylor. "They grind it out on defense. They really stress defense. They're very efficient on offense. They don't force anything, just like us. We don't force anything. We take what's given to us. It's going to be a battle of two teams who are very similar."

In what figures to be a well-coached game between two talented and deep benches, Tucker said the team who commits the fewest errors is likely to come away with victory.

UW committed more turnovers than is usual in their win at Marquette last Saturday. But Pittsburgh figures to pose a different challenge than the backcourt-led, perhaps faster paced Golden Eagles showed the Badgers.

Not only will Wisconsin find itself in a much friendlier environment than it did at the Bradley Center, but the careful nature with which both sides play suggests a slugfest.

"It probably will [be a slugfest]." Taylor said. "It's going to be a punch for punch. I don't think anybody's just gonna come in here and blow somebody out. I think it's going to be a very tough game."

Tucker said that last year the Badgers were pushed around in Pittsburgh – that they stopped making hard cuts and driving to the basket. That has not been a problem this year, Tucker added. The Badgers will need to continue that trend, which has them shooting more free throws than their opponents, even making more than the other side has attempted.

Tucker has, even after it was reported in the media, continued chiming around the locker room, "Show me my opponent!" He will get his toughest one yet. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is 26-0 in December and 45-1 against non-conference opponents.

Over the last five-plus years, only Duke, Illinois and Gonzaga have a better record than the Panthers' 143-33. So to get over the hump against the only team besides Wake Forest that Tucker has played more than once without claiming victory, his side will need to fire on all cylinders.

"It's going to be a great battle," Tucker said.

Now that the time has arrived, you can bet getting back at Pitt isn't just confined to the back of his head.

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