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Old Spice Classic: Badgers survive sloppy starts

Zone defenses slow UW's offense in two tournament wins

Wisconsin is known for playing an unwavering style of man-to-man defense, but has gotten well-acquainted with zone defense over the past 48 hours. The team's responses have been ugly, but ultimately effective, evidenced by Wisconsin's appearance in tomorrow's championship game in the Old Spice Classic.

The Badgers have started lethargically in the past two games, scoring a combined total of 43 points in the first halves against Manhattan and Boston College. On Thanksgiving Day, Manhattan opened in a 2-3 defense that limited the Badgers to 23% shooting during the first half. Wisconsin went into the locker room holding an unflattering 17-10 lead after shooting only 1-of-13 on 3-pointers. The Jaspers switched to 1-3-1 to start the second half, when the Badgers finally recovered to post a 50-35 win.

Boston College, which beat Texas A&M to advance, copied Manhattan's blueprint. Knowing Wisconsin has not found any consistency from behind the arc yet, the Eagles came out with a 2-3 zone to pacify the Badgers in the first half. Once again, instead of probing the defense's interior, Wisconsin settled for 3-pointers early and were ice cold (1-of-10). Boston College maintained a lead over UW with a 1-3-1 look after halftime as well.

Making matters worse, the Badgers were allowing too many offensive rebounds to the smaller Eagles and appeared slow to react to loose balls. Rebounds were bouncing out of players' hands. Color commentator Dan Dakich repeatedly pointed out how Wisconsin was getting "out-toughed." It was true.

Though Wisconsin trailed Boston College, 29-26, at halftime, the wake up call may have come before the break.

With 2:48 left in the half, Josh Gasser was shoved to the ground while fighting to keep BC big man Josh Southern out of the lane. Gasser picked up the foul however. That emotion sparked the Badgers to step up their defensive intensity, resulting in four consecutive stops, and their offensive urgency, which led to scoring on three straight possessions.

Mike Bruesewitz then scored eight of the Badgers 10 points to start the second half. And when Bruiser is cruisin' you know Wisconsin is in good shape. Moments after a shoddy net cost him a thunderous breakaway dunk off a Bruesewitz steal, Keaton Nankivil's put-back slam gave Wisconsin the 38-36 lead it would never relinquish. The basket sparked an 18-0 run over the next five and a half minutes en route to a 65-55 victory.

A balanced team effort engineered a 28-12 run to start the second half and pull away from Manhattan as well. In each game, though, senior Jon Leuer was the rock that UW relied on while it figured out the zone defense. Meanwhile, Leuer has bounced back from the UNLV loss to average 17 points and 10 rebounds during the tournament. Another key component has been avoiding turnovers, including a season-low three miscues against Boston College. Jordan Taylor recovered from some early mistakes and shooting trouble versus Manhattan to hit some clutch buckets during lulls against Boston College.

Upstart Notre Dame now awaits Wisconsin in the Old Spice Classic final at 6 pm Sunday (ESPN2). To win against the Irish, Wisconsin will have to do a better job of closing out the game than they did in the previous contests. Bo Ryan was noticeably upset with his crew in the last three minutes of the BC game, when the Eagles rattled off a 15-0 spurt to nearly erase UW's 22-point second half lead. Similarly, the Badgers surrendered a 13-2 run to Manhattan late. Notre Dame is more powerful offensively than either of UW's first two opponents in Orlando.

Going forward, Wisconsin has to get more consistent in all phases. The team's weakness guarding the perimeter is still apparent. Boston College's Reggie Jackson gave Gasser and company fits with his quickness before Jackson finally cooled off in the second half. A sustained defensive intensity could cure that.

It will be interesting to see which role players the Badgers can rely on for an offensive spark against the zone Notre Dame is sure to throw against them. Against Manhattan it was Tim Jarmusz hitting two treys. Along with Bruesewitz, Rob Wilson provided a huge offensive lift with his toughness around the basket against BC, scoring 10 points in 13 minutes.

A championship awaits. Consistency is the key.