|THURSDAY'S GAME SCHEDULE (all times CT)|
|South||(10) Stanford Cardinal vs. (11) Dayton Flyers||FedExForum
|6:15 p.m.||CBS||Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore, Reggie Miller, Rachel Nichols|
|West||(2) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (6) Baylor Bears||Honda Center
|6:47 p.m.||TBS||Marv Albert, Steve Kerr, Craig Sager|
|South||(1) Florida Gators vs. (4) UCLA Bruins||FedExForum
|8:45 p.m.||CBS||Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore, Reggie Miller, Rachel Nichols|
|West||(1) Arizona Wildcats vs. (4) San Diego State Aztecs||Honda Center
|9:17 p.m.||TBS||Marv Albert, Steve Kerr, Craig Sager|
Three keys to victory
In its latest Sweet 16 trip, Wisconsin draws another opponent that enters the contest playing its best basketball of the season. Since Feb. 12, the Baylor Bears are 12-2, and they just beat Dougie McBuckets and the 3-seed Creighton Bluejays into submission. Scott Drew has been a much-maligned coach during his tenure at Baylor, but whatever he did to flip that switch midway through this season has worked. I have similar worries about this matchup with the Bears as I did entering the Oregon game -- they're simply playing that good right now.
As was the case with the Ducks, it's Baylor's potent offense that gives me the most concern. Oregon got just about any shot it wanted in the first half last Saturday, and the Bears' offense is better -- No. 6 in the country in adjusted offense, according to KenPom. Heck, they just shot better than 60 percent (30-of-47) from the field in their romp of Creighton, so I think it's safe to say that Baylor is clicking.
Much the same could be said of Wisconsin, though, especially when you consider the second half the Badgers just put together. UW now boasts the fourth-best adjusted offense in America, which means tonight's contest could be a burning-of-the-nets type affair.
1. Take away Brady Heslip
When Heslip is knocking down shots from behind the arc, it opens up the floodgates for Baylor. Every player on the Bears' roster seems to elevate his game when their sharp-shooter's shots swoosh through the nets.
Heslip has scored 15-plus points eleven times this season, and Baylor is 9-2 in those games. If he hits that number again tonight, I think Wisconsin goes down. So again, as I've said numerous times, "here's looking at you, Josh Gasser."
Gasser has the ability to lockup defensively when it really matters, and today's contest certainly fits that billing. Heslip is a 46.8 percent shooter from three-point range and once he gets going, he's tough to slow down. If Gass can take Heslip out of his rhythm from the outset, I think the Badgers' chances of winning dramatically increase.
2. Limit second-chance points
Baylor is an offensive-rebounding juggernaut. The Bears' front-line is long and athletic, and Isaiah Austin (7'1) and Cory Jefferson (6'9) are probably going to be the toughest duo Frank Kaminsky has had to battle with all season.
Kaminsky is a solid rebounder for a 7-footer, but will he be able to handle athleticism he hasn't faced this year? These guys are as tenacious on the offensive glass as Michigan State's duo of Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, only they're better in the rebounding department. Baylor averages nearly 14 offensive rebounds a game, which puts them in the top 15 nationally, and those stats are buoyed by the likes of Austin and Jefferson.
The more second-chance opportunities Baylor gets tonight, the more likely it is the Badgers' tourney run ends. As I said last week, offensive rebounds equate to kick-out threes for Heslip and point guard Kenny Cherry, who is 9-of-19 from distance over his last five games.
I think Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes will have to be huge on the glass helping Kaminsky tonight, especially Dekker, who has the athleticism to match Baylor's front-line.
3. Shoot at least 40 percent from outside
I've been burned a couple of times this season when saying the Badgers need to hit threes to win, but tonight, it really does have true validity.
As much as Kaminsky needs to hold his own on the glass against Baylor, I don't know if he'll be able to operate with the effectiveness we're used to on the offensive end. Austin and Jefferson will likely take turns defending Big Frank in the post, and they combine for 4.5 blocks per game. Kaminsky, as we all know, is awfully crafty on the block, but the Bears have the athleticism to react and recover to those ball fakes. I see our big man struggling underneath against Baylor's height and length.
Thus, the Badgers need to hit shots from the outside to stretch out Baylor's intimidating but beatable 1-3-1 zone. Living down in Iowa, I was able to watch Iowa State's three games against the Bears this season (in which ISU went 2-1) and the Cyclones found the most success when they were connecting from distance. In the three games, ISU went 30-of-69 from behind the arc, and shooting it that effectively allowed their bigs to eventually find space on the interior as the zone stretched out. Wisconsin has to be making jump shots early to allow for dribble penetration later, it's as simply as that.
One final nugget -- the Badgers are 13-1 this year when shooting better than 40 percent from behind the parabola, so if they can eclipse that mark again tonight, I say they move to 14-1.
Prediction: Folks, I'm in the same exact boat I was last weekend: my head tells me to pick the Bears but my heart won't allow it. For whatever reason, I just believe this UW squad is too special to have its run end tonight. Wisconsin 74, Baylor 67.