The best day on the sports calendar is finally here. The first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament brings joy to millions of fans and players alike, but also plenty of trepidation for head coaches whose reputations are forged during March.
But not Bo Ryan. Despite the public's clamoring for more tourney success, Ryan approaches every game pretty much the same way. And you have to respect that consistency. It is part of the reason that he is 8-1 in first round games at Wisconsin.
So Ryan probably does not mind that as soon as the Badgers (23-8) drew a No. 4 seed opposite Belmont (30-4), scores of pundits and bloggers had UW as their trendy pick to be upset by the 13th-seeded Bruins. The way people are talking, you'd think Wisconsin was playing John Wooden's UCLA club. Instead the Badgers face a school more well-known to me personally for attracting gifted musicians. However, there are still many reasons to be concerned about the Atlantic Sun Conference champions from Nashville.
Facing off against a 12- or 13-seed strikes an unusual amount of fear into the fans of higher-seeded opponents, anyway, but the sensation is heightened when a team like Wisconsin is riding an embarrassing two-game losing streak. The fear is partly due to unfamiliarity and the typically gaudy records the underdog brings to the table. Mostly, though, it is because those two lower seeds have combined to win more than 27% of their first-round games since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. So two of the eight 4- or 5-seeds have to lose this year. Math is irrepressible, right?
The game should be an interesting match up between two teams beloved, possibly even overrated, by Ken Pomeroy. Similarities include a fondness for lots of 3-pointers and a failure to get to the free throw line very often.
Despite giving up 93 points to Ohio State in the regular season finale and scoring only 33 in a Big Ten Tournament loss to Penn State, Pomeroy still ranks Wisconsin ninth overall. The Badgers are buoyed by their record-setting aversion to turnovers and free throw shooting ability, as well as the nation's second most efficient offense in the country.
The Bruins are no slouches, landing 18th according to Pomeroy. But Belmont's preeminent strength is aggressiveness: creating turnovers (they force TOs more frequently than any team not named Duquesne), thus speeding up the tempo, and yeah, also fouling a lot. Sophomore Kerron Johnson leads the way with the best steal % in the country. These tactics will be tested against junior Jordan Taylor and the Wisconsin offense.
Two more disconcerting factors remain. First of all, especially in light of Wisconsin's recent tournament exits, is just how well the Bruins shoot. Belmont has the eighth-highest effective FG% (54.4) in Division I. If you are like me, you consider this year's Badgers a step below previous years on the defense end too. Wisconsin has allowed opponents to shoot 37.5% on threes, a rate which might bury the Badgers if they let Belmont continue the trend. Secondly, Belmont plays great defense -- the 19th most efficient defense compared to UW's 61st-ranked defensive efficiency.
Belmont does not have Taylor and Jon Leuer though. The Badger duo will be the best two players on the court Thursday, which gives UW a terrific chance to win. Last year Wisconsin rode Leuer to a close victory over Wofford in a similar David vs. Goliath situation. Taylor has emerged as the true heart and soul of the team. I don't foresee Wisconsin getting rattled.
Seniors Jordan Campbell and Jon House were a part of the 15th-seeded Belmont team that barely lost, 71-70, to second-seeded Duke in 2008 however. So they know what opportunity lies in front of them. Each guy is but one of 11 Bruins who average at least 10 minutes per-game for Belmont, although head coach Rick Byrd will trim his bench a bit for the tournament:
Byrd, 57, acknowledges that he has learned a few things from previous tournament exposure. Today, he plans to tighten his substitution pattern to keep his best players on the floor a few more minutes. The TV timeouts provide longer breaks for players.
Campbell will certainly be on of the players staying on the floor. At 6'5", Campbell has good size for a wing shooter and is one of the most efficient players in the country. The Indianapolis native is crushing 3-pointers at a 46% clip. Sophomore guard Ian Clark is hitting 43.6% of his treys and leads the team with 12.4 ppg. Three other regulars also shoot better than 33% from 3-point range.
But the key to Belmont -- stop me if you've heard this one -- is the capable big men inside. Juniors Mick Hedgepeth (6'9") and Scott Saunders (6'10") both average over 10 ppg and 5 rpg. Hedgepeth has stepped up better than Saunders against quality competition, scoring 16 in a loss to Vanderbilt earlier in the year and 23 in their bid-clinching win over North Florida in the Atlantic Sun tournament.
Surrounding a solid post game with a plethora of shooters is the same formula that worked for Cornell last season when it defeated Wisconsin, 87-69.
For the Badgers, the scouting game plan put together by Greg Gard will help, but this is really just put up or shut up time. This is about attitude and execution. A coaching staff can only do so much in that regard.
Having Mike Bruesewitz will help, as he was playing pretty well against Penn State before his knee injury. He gives Wisconsin another physical post defender to work into the mix, so Leuer and Keaton Nankivil are not alone. The team needs his energy. If the Badgers can win those battles inside, it will allow Taylor and company to get more aggressive on the perimeter.
In the end, we know Wisconsin can get as hot as any other team in the country. The Badgers have to shoot well and at least one of the supporting characters must be a participant in that good shooting. Though Tim Jarmusz has gone M.I.A. (and scoreless) in the past two games, he will be needed to on the court to take care of the ball. He has to be aggressive offensively.
The Southeast Region is there for the taking and Wisconsin should seize the day.