This week Wisconsin cracked the AP poll's top 10 for the first time in two seasons and hopes to reach its best start ever under Bo Ryan with a fourth win in eight days. To do so, the No. 10 Badgers must take down an undefeated and under-appreciated Saint Louis squad in the 2013 Cancun Challenge's marquee matchup Tuesday evening.
Riding high off of a successful week and Frank Kaminsky's record-breaking performance against North Dakota, Wisconsin (6-0) could be ripe for an upset at the hands of a team like Saint Louis.
Soft scheduling seems to be the only thing keeping the Billikens (5-0) out of the polls so far. Led by 6'6" senior forward Dwayne Evans and an experienced backcourt, the reigning Atlantic 10 champions have the sixth-best defense in the country so far, ready to put the hot-shooting Badgers to the test.
The Billikens' suffocating perimeter defense is cause for concern, but how might Saint Louis respond to a step-up in competition? For answers, I turned to Ben Weixlmann, publisher of BillikenReport.com, who knows the SLU program as well as anyone.
B5Q: There have been many connections between the state of Wisconsin and this Saint Louis program in recent years, from players (Jake Barnett, Kwamain Mitchell, Drew Diener) to coaches (Brad Soderberg, Rick Majerus, Tanner Bronson). In particular, the late, great Majerus was literally a larger than life character.
Looking back at his teams' finishes in the A-10, it's possible Majerus' impact has been overstated due to his giant persona. What do you think? Can you quantify the impact and ultimate legacy Majerus left at Saint Louis?
Ben Weixlmann: I don't think it's overstated at all. In fact, it's understated if anything. Rick brought this program to new heights during his tenure and Jim Crews has done a really good job of keeping the core thoughts the same, while adding his own touch. I don't think it's possible to quantify what Rick did for SLU. His legacy will be felt for many years to come.
B5Q: For our readers that weren't aware, Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews played for and coached under Bob Knight at Indiana for many years. He went on to lengthy head coaching stay at Evansville before moving on to Army. What are his primary coaching philosophies? Do you see similarities between Crews and Bo Ryan from a defensive standpoint?
BW: Crews preaches about the input rather than the output. He wants to make sure the plays that his team is making are the right ones, regardless if an opponent hits a shot against the given defense or what-have-you. I think his defensive philosophy is somewhat similar to Rick's, which in a way is probably similar to Bo's -- get it done on this end of the floor and it will feed your offense. People thought for the longest time that SLU was a methodical, boring team. While that wasn't necessarily false, they also liked to push the ball when given the opportunities off long rebounds, etc. Jim has continued to build on that philosophy and I think you're seeing a faster pace of play in the past few years than you did under Rick.
B5Q: This year's Billiken roster is loaded with experience -- SLU starts four seniors and one junior. Much like the Badgers, the Billikens appear to be incredibly balanced on offense too. If this comes down to a one-possession game, which guy is Saint Louis going to look to for the winning bucket?
BW: That's a really good question. I suppose it would matter if the Billikens need a 3 to tie or not. If it's 2 or less, though, I think you have to give the ball to Dwayne Evans and see if he can go to work on the Badgers' bigs. He has an uncanny ability to score despite giving up several inches in the post. If you need a three, I think your best bet is to look for Mike McCall Jr. or Rob Loe off a pick-and-pop.
B5Q: The strength of the team is undoubtedly at guard with seniors Jordair Jett, Mike McCall and wing Dwayne Evans (not to mention sophomore sub Austin McBroom). Go into a little more detail about each of the seniors and how they might match up with Wisconsin's own threesome (Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser) at guard. Who do you see having the upper hand between these two talented and experienced backcourts?
BW: Not trying to intentionally dodge your question here, so I'll answer it in a kind of roundabout way. I personally think the one guard on the SLU roster that will pose big problems for Wisconsin is Jordair Jett. Brust, Jackson, and Gasser are all smaller guards, and Jett is a legitimate 215, 220 pounds. He's built like a linebacker and has a quick first step. If he's able to get going early, it's going to be tough for Wisconsin to contain him. I like what Brust does, and having tracked Gasser for a while as he was a SLU recruit for some time, I'm a big fan of his game. I think McCall Jr. can contain both of those guards in the half court, though.
B5Q: Wisconsin typically shoots -- and makes -- a ton of threes. What is the key to Saint Louis holding opponents to 20% shooting from 3-point land so far this season?
BW: I think it's the fundamental rotation on defense. Perhaps it's the veteran-laden squad, but these guys communicate with one another really well and tend to get out on shooters to force difficult looks.
B5Q: Saint Louis has decimated the common Cancun Challenge opponents (Bowling Green & Oral Roberts) perhaps more impressively than Wisconsin. But the Billikens have not really been tested by a team of their own caliber this season. Based on what you've seen so far in those victories, is there anything that worries you about SLU facing a Big Ten opponent?
BW: I'm not sure if there would be something that would worry me from a SLU standpoint about facing a Big Ten opponent, per se. SLU has faced solid competition before. This team went 5-1 last year against Top 25 teams, so they know what it takes. But the physicality, I guess, is something that SLU hasn't seen quite yet this year.
B5Q: I was a big Larry Hughes fan, and thus, rooted for the Billikens for one season (1997-98). The program had a lot of success under Charlie Spoonhour in the 1990s, but has certainly seen its ups and downs. Coming back behind Majerus and now Crews, do you think SLU can remain a strong basketball program for years to come or will the Billikens continue to ebb and flow greatly as coaches come and go?
BW: I most definitely think SLU can. They are continually getting more and more support from the community, donors, and slowly but surely, the administration. With a likely move to the Big East on the horizon sooner rather than later and a solid 2014 recruiting class, I think the Billikens are set for success for a while to come.
B5Q: The winner of this game is the heavy favorite to be crowned 2013 Cancun Challenge champion -- care to make a prediction?
BW: Well, I did a best two out of three coin flip (no, really ... I did). Wisconsin won the first flip, and SLU took the last two. Thus, I'll take SLU by 4.
While Ben's prediction might surprise you, this game is basically a toss-up in Vegas with the Badgers 1.5-point favorites. Thanks again to Ben for helping us preview this intriguing first matchup down in Cancun. Follow him on Twitter @BWeixScout and find his work posted over at Billiken Report.
Note: On the injury front, George Marshall will be back in uniform tonight for Wisconsin after missing four games with a concussion.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Rob Loe, Sr.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Grandy Glaze, Jr.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G / F||Dwayne Evans, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Mike McCall Jr., Sr.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Jordair Jett, Sr.|
KenPom win probability: 50% (70-69 W) 67 possessions
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