The time is near, folks. Forget the regular season. Forget the conference tournaments. The Big Dance is a whole different animal.
We are officially about 48 hours away from tip-off of the Badgers' opening game in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Looking at the tourney draw in totality, I'd argue that Wisconsin couldn't have asked for a more desirable route to Atlanta --but you've still got to go out and play the games.
In this year of widespread parity across the college basketball landscape, no test will be easy. However, if the Badgers can string good play together like they did in the United Center last weekend, then a trip to the Final Four isn't out of the question.
But with such a feat possible, all Wisconsin fans must be eager to know: will they see the UW squad that played so well in Chicago, or will they get the enigmatic and inconsistent team that popped up at different junctures during the regular season? We shall find out shortly.
There is only one thing we are certain of at this point -- the Badgers' second round opponent: the No. 12 seed Ole Miss Rebels. The champions of the SEC conference tournament are 26-8 and have won eight of their last 10 contests. They boast the top scoring offense in the SEC and 10th-best in the nation, averaging 77.9 points per game.
With this being a classic 12-5 matchup and both teams seemingly playing their best basketball to end the year, Wisconsin could find itself in trouble if it allows Ole Miss to hang around. What must the Badgers do to come out on top and ensure a second game in Kansas City?
Fluster Marshall Henderson by throwing multiple guys at him defensively
Obvious, right? Henderson is the offensive catalyst for Ole Miss and one of the highest-scoring players in the nation, averaging 20.1 points per game. But his scoring prowess doesn't get the most attention. Henderson is probably the single most vilified player that Wisconsin has faced in some time. I know we've seen Aaron Craft a lot and he's a pest, but Henderson is on another level. His antics have garnered much notoriety throughout the season, and if you really need to see what the guy is like, just watch these highlights against Vanderbilt. Better yet, just read this tweet from a couple days ago.
Mentally, we'll call Henderson a loose cannon at best. His frame of mind can be broken. How do the Badgers do that? By throwing multiple guys at him in short spurts so he can't get in any rhythm. As we've seen all year, UW's 10th-ranked scoring defense is rugged and physical, and most nights, it's what wins the game. But Henderson has faced (and beaten) a similar defensive team before in Florida. The Badgers will have to rotate the likes of Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust and Mike Bruesewitz on to him so he feels out of the flow all game long. I'd even throw Sam Dekker on him for a couple of minutes because he's long and athletic enough to chase him around screens.
Henderson hasn't faced the highest quality competition this year, but after looking at his statistics in six games against the RPI top-50 (three vs. Missouri, two vs. Florida and one vs. Middle Tennessee), his averages actually didn't dip all that much. He poured in 19.5 points per game on 40 percent shooting in those contests, and he was 21-of-59 (35.6 percent) from distance in those games.
He can be inconsistent, but Henderson has the ability to light it up with the best of them. He's gone over the 25-point mark 10 times this season, and he's the ultimate "green light" player. Head coach Andy Kennedy has given him the freedom to take just about any shot at any time (hence the nearly 11 three-point field goal attempts per game), which you'd think plays wonderfully into Wisconsin's hands as a low-possession team. If the Badgers can make Henderson impatient in the Ole Miss offense, then I think they win handily. But if he hits his first couple shots and gets hot early, then I grow worried if I'm a Wisconsin fan. Sure, he may go through lulls throughout an entire 40 minutes, but still, Henderson is talented enough to single-handedly win a tournament game. Don't let him feel comfortable.
Keep Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner off the offensive glass
The Badgers were able to beat the likes of Michigan and Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament because they were more physical in the post. That might not be as easy against the aforementioned Holloway and Buckner. Both players are physical specimens -- Holloway at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, and Buckner at 6-foot-9, 235 pounds with great athleticism.
Holloway, a second-team All-SEC selection, ranked seventh in the conference in scoring at 14.6 points per game, and he topped the conference in field goal percentage (55.7). Where does he operate? Almost exclusively around the bucket, with many of those opportunities coming from offensive rebounds. He was second in the SEC in that category, averaging 3.5 per game.
Bucker is no rebounding slouch himself. He ranked fifth in the conference in offensive rebounding, collecting 3.1 per game. He's also a threat on the defensive end, where he swatted 2.7 shots a night -- good for second in the SEC. His presence could make it harder for Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren to work down low.
If Wisconsin gets beat up on the glass (like it did in the second half against Ohio State on Sunday), then it could be in for a fight. The more offensive rebounds the Badgers allow, the more kick-out threes Ole Miss will have the chance to jack up. Wide-open looks for Henderson won't bode well for UW.
Get Dekker into the flow of the offense early
Dekker is easily the biggest matchup problem for Ole Miss. His athleticism at 6-foot-7 is hard for anybody to guard against, and the Rebels are prone to laziness on the defensive end at times. But it will be up to the freshman to be aggressive when called upon Friday.
He looked timid under the bright lights in the Big Ten Tournament, averaging just seven points in the three games. The personal 7-0 run against Indiana was huge, but that was his only standout moment. The stage he's about to step on is as big as it gets, and Wisconsin will need its best offensive weapon to be dynamic when it matters.
In the NCAA tournament, the most talented players on each team have to play well in order to advance. When they don't, upsets occur and the Cinderellas emerge. If Wisconsin has another of its prolonged scoring droughts on Friday, then Dekker might have to be the guy who just wills the ball into the basket. Otherwise, Ole Miss will have a great opportunity to become one of those Cinderellas.
I've said all year that the Badgers are a different team when they get an assertive Dekker. Let's see if he rises to the occasion.