Three keys to victory
"Three down, three to go."
Keep reciting that phrase to yourself Badger fans. This tournament run has been sensational, but we all know it can get even better.
It's easy to jump off the rocker in excitement and hysteria given what we've seen from Wisconsin so far, but one thing is for sure, tonight's contest will undoubtedly be the toughest yet. Arizona is the top seed in the West for a reason, and the Wildcats' second half performance against San Diego State proved as much.
The Badgers, arguably coming off their most impressive game of the season from start to finish, have to feel as though this is the year to get Bo Ryan into the Final Four. The way Wisconsin dissected and carved through Baylor's zone was beautiful to watch, and when the Bears switched to man-to-man in the second half, the Badgers' efficient onslaught continued. Boy was that pretty to watch, but can it continue?
As good as Baylor's zone was supposedly playing entering Thursday's game, the Bears adjusted defensive efficiency was still down in the 70s nationally. Arizona on the other hand, boasts the No. 1 adjusted defense ranking in the country, and the Wildcats' rugged, physical man-to-man defense can give teams all sorts of trouble. In the second half, San Diego State shot just 37.5 percent (9-of-24) from the field, which allowed Arizona to eventually take control and advance to the Elite 8.
The Wildcats have the Pac-12's Player of the Year in Nick Johnson, the Freshman of the Year in Aaron Gordon and the Coach of the Year in Sean Miller-they're a truly elite squad in every way. I mean, when you only lose four games throughout the course of an entire season, you're good... real good. In no way do I see Wisconsin being intimated by this fact-I'm merely stating the Badgers have a tough task on their hands.
But what can the Badgers do to be successful in handling tonight's tough task? Well, we've got some ideas. Let's delve into our classic three keys that may just allow Wisconsin to dance all the way to north Texas.
1. Traevon Jackson must continue to operate effectively
I've said it time and time again throughout this season... when Jackson is playing at a high level, Wisconsin can look damn near unbeatable.
And right now, Trae is playing at an awfully high level.
In the Badgers' three NCAA Tournament wins, Jackson is averaging almost 14 points and has a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He did get a little careless with the basketball and tried to showboat a pass against Baylor, but aside from that, Jackson played under control and got his teammates the ball where they needed it inside the Bears' zone.
The million-dollar question though, is can Trae be the floor general Wisconsin needs against a defender as pesky as Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell? McConnell is the best on-ball defender I've seen this year not named Aaron Craft, and when Jackson faced Craft back on Jan. 5, he went 2-of-9 from the floor for seven points, and turned it over more than he assisted baskets.
We've seen Trae struggle with elite defenders guarding him before, and tonight would not be the time for such struggles to reemerge. If he limits the turnovers against Arizona's man-to-man pressure, I like Wisconsin's chances.
2. Use the pack-line defense to force Aaron Gordon into tough looks
Gordon has been the Wildcats' best player so far this tournament, and by a large margin. He's rebounded, shot it efficiently and showcased his playmaking ability play after play.
At some point, you've got to think Gordon has a rough stretch, and if Wisconsin brings the defensive mold it used against Baylor to this contest, then we might finally see less effectiveness from the supremely talented freshman.
Much like Baylor's Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson, Gordon is an elite athlete that is great at finishing around the rim, but he's not the best shooter in the world. Sure, he's 3-of-4 from behind the arc in this tournament, but I still think you've got to make him prove he can consistently hit outside jumpers before you pressure him away from the basket.
Whatever the Badgers end up doing defensively to matchup with Gordon, it better be good enough to prevent the future NBA lottery pick from continuing to shoot better than 70% from the field (22-of-30 in NCAA Tournament). I think packing the paint and allowing Frank Kaminsky to challenge Gordon's shots underneath is the best bet to keeping him from dominating play.
3. Get off to another good start
This is a generic key to finish off, but in games of Elite 8 magnitude, the first ten minutes usually tell the story.
If Wisconsin is able to make shots early, the nerves will settle and we'll be in for one hell of a game. If shots aren't falling, it could be a long night.
If you look back at the last really physical man-to-man defense the Badgers faced, it was that of Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal. What did Wisconsin shoot in the first half of that game? 28 percent (7-of-25). Simply put, the Badgers can ill afford a cold start like that if they're going to move on to the Final Four and beat a team with the talent of Arizona.
Prediction: I think this game is going to be an instant classic. Both Wisconsin and Arizona have gotten to this point because they are the best of the best and deserve to be here. I do worry that the Wildcats' significant crowd advantage will give them the slight upper hand, but I believe in the Wisconsin's ability to overcome that factor. Somehow, the Badgers find a way. Wisconsin 68, Arizona 66.