It's time to dance!
After one of the best seasons of the Bo Ryan era, Wisconsin's quest to reach its first Final Four since 2000 begins Thursday morning against the American University Eagles.
At 26-7 on the year, the Badgers have had one heck of a 2013-14 campaign, but the pressure ratchets up by the time tip-off rolls around at 11:40 AM CT. Yes, Wisconsin garnered a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance and rightfully so, but throw out everything that's happened to this point... now it's time to play for all the marbles.
In game one of their NCAA Tournament, the Badgers draw an American team that went 20-12 on the year and finished second in the Patriot League during the regular season before defeating Boston University in the conference tournament playoff game. The Eagles predicate themselves on stout defense, a slower tempo and high-percentage shots that allow for a balanced scoring attack -- four players average in double figures entering the matchup with the Badgers.
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For Thursday only, living the American Dream is a bad thing. A Patriot League expert weighs in on what makes UW's first-round opponent, the American Eagles, potentially troublesome.
According to KenPom, American is the 47th-best adjusted defensive efficiency team in the country, while Wisconsin is 58th in that department. The major difference between the teams is obviously on the offensive end, where the Badgers boast the fifth-best adjusted offensive efficiency mark in college basketball and American ranks far behind at 199th.
Led by first-year head coach Mike Brennan, the Eagles have had a remarkable turnaround from a year ago when they went 10-20 overall and won just five league games. Brennan is a disciple of Georgetown's John Thompson III, and his team plays much like the Hoyas -- rugged defense and methodical, Princeton-like offense.
Can that style bother the Badgers enough to make things interesting? Though unlikely, it could, especially given the fact Wisconsin doesn't have the same slow-it-down team of years past.
In the history of the 64-team field, 15-seeds have beat 2-seeds in the first round seven times, including once last year when Florida Gulf Coast throttled Georgetown. What then are the factors that will prevent the Badgers from becoming victim No. 8? We give you our classic three keys as the road to Dallas gets underway.
Don't allow Jesse Reed to go off
Reed is a 6'5 sophomore forward and the Eagles' leading scorer on the season, averaging 13.9 points per game. In American's two games this year against teams in the NCAA Tournament field (Ohio State and Mount St. Mary's), Reed averaged 18 points on 67 percent shooting. He's shown he's capable of stepping up his game against better competition, though Wisconsin is undoubtedly a different animal than either of those teams above.
Look, for a 15-seed to beat a 2, an individual player has to have that "game of a lifetime" type performance. Last year, Florida Gulf Coast got two such performances as Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson combined for 47 points in their blowout of the Hoyas.
Reed seems like the only guy on the Eagles' roster capable of scoring at a high clip against the Badgers, and if he doesn't, then I don't see American having much chance.
Also, Reed will likely be matched up individually with Wisconsin's defensive ace, Josh Gasser. So, to that I say, "good luck."
Get Traevon Jackson in a rhythm
This marks the third consecutive piece in which I've mentioned Traevon Jackson as a main key to Wisconsin's success, and in this fashion, it will probably be my last.
I've said it once and I'll say it again, this Badgers team needs "Michigan road win" Traevon as its point guard for the duration of this tournament, or else an early exit is in the realm of possibility.
If you look at the national champions from the past five seasons, four of them had elite point guards and the other had the consummate collegiate leader. Last year, Louisville had Peyton Siva to control games defensively and distribute the rock. Before that, Kentucky had John Wall as its star and UConn's Kemba Walker took his team almost single-handedly to a title. Duke's Greg Paulus wasn't much of a scorer, but he was good enough to be a leader. Then five years back, UNC had Ty Lawson.
All were point guards that were playing their best basketball of the season when it mattered most, and that is what Jackson has to deliver for UW. He doesn't have to score it a bunch, we all know that, but he's got to control the tempo. If he does, I think Wisconsin can be one of the last four teams standing.
Get out to an early lead
This is a straightforward and slightly generic key, but it is a key nonetheless.
As the old adage goes, the longer you let underdogs hang around, the more confidence they gain, and that's when upsets occur. If Wisconsin gets off to a good start offensively, American won't be able to keep with the Badgers' offensive prowess.
A nice little 10-2 run to start the game would calm everybody's nerves, and it also wouldn't allow the Eagles to develop any thought that they have a chance.
Prediction: Expect the Badgers to get Bo Ryan win No. 701, and a date likely with Oregon Ducks awaits on Saturday. Wisconsin 78, American 60.