As we saw earlier this season with Northwestern, it's not out of the question for Wisconsin to struggle against a strong defensive team that likes to play at a glacial pace. In fact, American University, a No. 15 seed in the West Region, has a number of qualities that could be problematic for the Badgers.
The Eagles (20-12) have a capable big man in senior Tony Wroblicky (who shoots free throws one-handed), a small, quick waterbug of a point guard in Darius Gardner and the ability to get hot from outside. American shoots 38.2 percent on 3-pointers and has the sixth-highest effective field goal percentage (56.3 percent) in the country, thanks to easy looks created by the Princeton offense.
Even as a mighty No. 2 seed, Wisconsin (26-7) is not on the same level defensively as previous Wisconsin squads. Luckily, Bo Ryan and the Badgers are no strangers to slow pace. And it seems former Air Force Falcon Zach Bohannon has been helping to educate his UW teammates about the intricacies of American's style of play.
Though they appeared to coast through the Patriot League tournament to earn an automatic bid, the Eagles have obvious weaknesses. One has been a stunning amount of turnovers. American owns a turnover rate (22.8 percent) nearly double Wisconsin's (12.6 percent). The other is they have no bench to speak of. Paging Nigel Hayes...
Want to go more in depth into the psyche of an underdog? We chatted with SB Nation's Patriot League guru Jimmy Kelley, who writes for Mid-Major Madness.
B5Q: We know that American employs a Princeton-style offense installed by first-year head coach Mike Brennan, a Pete Carril disciple and long-time assistant under John Thompson III at Princeton and Georgetown. The perception of such an offense is that it takes a lot of discipline -- yet American turns the ball over at one of the highest rates in the entire country (22.8 percent). What's the deal?
Mid-Major Madness (Jimmy): The Princeton-style offense requires well-timed cuts and precise passes when at its most effective. When one (or both) of those things doesn't happen it leads to the ball going out of bounds, being tipped, or simply being stolen. Also contributing to this is the pace of American's offense. When you take 30 seconds almost every possession, your total number of possessions is going to be much lower than that of other teams and that will inflate the turnover number. The Eagles have only topped 70 possessions twice this year -- in a win over UMBC and a loss to Ohio State. Ideally American wants to limit possessions, take effective shots, and assist on as many baskets as humanly possible. Because of how efficient they are, you can live with a turnover rate like that.
B5Q: Center Tony Wroblicky is the team's leading rebounder (7.3 per game) and second-leading scorer (12.2). How well do you think he matches up with Wisconsin's versatile big man, Frank Kaminsky?
This American Primer
This American Primer
MMM: I think that matchup is going to be by far the most entertaining matchup of the game. Wroblicky does a little bit of everything, which is always appreciated, but when you take into account that he's a legitimate seven-footer it makes you take a step back. He spends a lot of his time at the high post and has been known to dish out five or so assists on a good day as one of the trigger men of the offense. He can score inside with a series of baby hooks and drop steps that seem to work way more than they ever should. Defensively he can effect shots, but he isn't the most athletic of big men. He actually had a fairly entertaining matchup with Amir Williams back in November, totaling four blocks while putting up 14 points and seven rebounds, but Williams got the better of him offensively because of his athleticism. I think Kaminsky's ability to step away from the basket will be an asset and if he can get Wroblicky going backward he will have some success.
B5Q: For followers of the Patriot League, I'm sure American's slow start (3-7) this season has been well-documented. Can you explain to our readers if there was any event or development near the start of the new year that seemed to propel the Eagles on the 11-game winning streak that turned things around?
MMM: American was not supposed to be this good this year. Let's get that right out in the open. We had them picked dead last in the Patriot League, so the 3-7 start to the season was kind of what we all expected. What happened was this group of players - six of them, really - clicked with Mike Brennan's system and things just took off. Wroblicky and Darius Gardner got comfortable as trigger men, Jesse Reed got comfortable making shots, John Shoof got comfortable making cuts. The system works, players just have to know it like the back of their hand and once they got to that point the ceiling came off and the sky was the limit.
B5Q: As a result of the offensive scheme, the Eagles appear to spread out offensive opportunities effectively among four different players. Besides Wroblicky inside, Jesse Reed, John Schoof, and point guard Darius Gardner are all deadly beyond the arc. Reed is the most efficient, shooting a Josh Gasser-like 46.8 percent on threes. Is Reed a guy that American will run specific plays for if they need a bucket or is Schoof more likely to take those shots?
MMM: What makes Reed so fascinating is that he is still growing into his game, yet he's such a deadly offensive player when he has it going. He's really the team's third option behind Wroblicky and Gardner and they probably don't run as much for him as they probably could, but he still manages to find his opportunities through cuts and skip passes. You just have to find him and keep track of him behind the arc -- 163 of his 289 field goal attempts came from three -- because if you don't he'll absolutely kill you.
B5Q: Where do you think American falls on the hierarchy of the Washington, D.C. sports scene? Will the Eagle faithful travel well to Milwaukee for a No. 2 vs. No. 15 matchup?
MMM: American actually had a decent showing at Agganis Arena in Boston for the Patriot League final and that was without its band making the trip. Unfortunately, I don't think the Eagles move the needle very much down there so I wouldn't expect to see many casual fans in Milwaukee. The die-hards and maybe some alumni in the Great Lakes region might make the trip, but it will be a decidedly pro-Badger crowd.
B5Q: In your opinion, what is the key storyline that will determine whether American can put a scare into the Badgers on Thursday?
MMM: Pace. Wisconsin has a reputation for playing bruising, physical basketball and that is reflected in its possession numbers. I think Mike Brennan would love to see this game slow down to something similar to the Badgers matchups with Virginia, Marquette, Ohio State, Minnesota and Indiana. In each of those games the possession numbers fell below 60 and Wisconsin posted a 3-2 record. Overall, the Badgers are 5-2 on the season when the game has less than 60 possessions while American is 7-5 is such contests, including its last two wins over Holy Cross and BU. If this game is played at American's pace, they WILL make a game out of this.
Quite a turn of events to see Wisconsin's opponent hoping to impose its slow tempo to give them a shot at winning, isn't it? Jimmy is welcome back any time ... I suggest you give him a follow on Twitter for this game @JimmyKelley_. You can check out additional mid-major coverage via @Mid-Major Madness as well.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Tony Wroblicky, Sr.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Kyle Kager, Jr.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G||John Schoof, Jr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Jesse Reed, So.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Darius Gardner, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 82 percent (66-58 W) 59 possessions
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