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March Madness 2015: Wisconsin must overcome more than North Carolina in Sweet 16

A loose but focused Wisconsin team, traveling between Omaha, Madison and Los Angeles in a matter of 24 hours, is ready to face a fast-paced North Carolina squad.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- When top-seeded Wisconsin (33-3) tips off Thursday afternoon against No. 4 seed North Carolina (26-11), the Badgers will have been off the court for less than four days.

After finally disposing of Oregon late Sunday night in Omaha, the Badgers were delayed several hours en route back to Madison, finally arriving after 1 a.m. CT Monday. Just 19 hours later, the team was back in the air and headed west, arriving in Los Angeles a little after 10 p.m. PT Monday.

"We feel at home," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said, referring to the Badgers having been in Anaheim for last year's NCAA West regional. "It was nice to get to L.A. Monday night and get settled in, try to get used to the time zone here."

Having had the experience of coming out to the west coast last year, Ryan made the last-minute decision to fly out a day earlier than normal, giving the Badgers an extra day to adjust to the time change and to recover from an exhausting first weekend in Omaha.

"I just about fell off my chair," Wisconsin Director of Basketball Operations Kat Vosters said about hearing that Ryan wanted to leave a day early.

"Nobody was expecting to go early. But once we figured we were going, we had a little time in Omaha before our flight left so we talked to our hotel, talked to the flight people, got our meals in to the hotel in L.A. Really, it went about as smoothly as possible."

Much has been made over the last week about Wisconsin's unique looseness, a trait that really separates these Badgers from teams past and certainly gives them a leg up when it comes to coping with adversities inherent to the NCAA tournament.

"We get along so well with each other," senior guard Josh Gasser. "We spend so much time with each other that if you don't like the guys you are around, you are going to be miserable."

Once Wisconsin did arrive in California, the team's focus quickly flipped to preparing for North Carolina. Although Southern California presents a number of potential distractions, the Badgers have leaned on the experience of being in Anaheim last year as they try to be in a position to play their best basketball come Thursday.

"Being out here last year, we understand that it's a business trip," Gasser said.

"You only get a few chances to win a national title and make the Final Four, so we are trying to take advantage of that."

The game itself will once again be a battle of contrasting styles, with the Tar Heels looking to push the pace and get out in transition against a Badger team that thrives on keeping the game confined to the half court.

"We haven't run as well as I wanted us to run," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "For us, I like the fast pace, but really good teams make it difficult for you to get fast-break points."

"North Carolina relies on lot more on transition," Wisconsin senior forward Duje Dukan added. "Their length inside is unimaginable; there is no other team in the country that can show that."

Although the Tar Heels have a tremendous amount of length and athleticism up and down their lineup, they do not have a clear-cut favorite to handle the task of defending senior forward Frank Kaminsky, a matchup nightmare who appears at this point to be the frontrunner for national player of the year honors.

Sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks, who at 6'9" and 270 pounds would seem to be the Tar Heel most likely to contain Kaminsky, remains questionable after suffering a knee injury in Saturday's win over Arkansas. If Meeks is not able to go, UNC will have an even more difficult time matching up.

"He's really a fantastic, fantastic player," Williams said of Kaminsky. "One of the big guys is going to have to be able to get out there and guard him, and we may end up going small as we did against Arkansas. A lot of that also depends on how healthy Kennedy [Meeks] is."

"It's going to be a tough task," junior forward Brice Johnson added. "Everybody just has to be prepared."

While the Tar Heels wait and see whether Meeks will be available, Wisconsin knows that it will once again have senior guard Traevon Jackson, who is set to return after being sidelined since Jan. 11 with a broken foot. Although there is obviously concern among outsiders that Jackson's return could threaten the chemistry of a lineup that has posted an 18-1 record in his absence, the Badgers seem to think he can do nothing but help their chances at moving on to the Elite Eight for a second straight year.

"He's been doing a great job keeping up with his cardio and making sure that when he's able to play again, his wind will be where its supposed to be at," sophomore forward Nigel Hayes said. "He's a veteran guard and I think that once he starts playing again, he'll segue into things extremely well."

"He's been there before," Gasser added.

"For him its more of a confidence thing. Us as teammates have confidence in him and our coaches have confidence in him. He just has to have confidence that he can go out and contribute."

Although Jackson will likely be limited with regard to his minutes, he says he has no limitations physically. Whatever role he might play, the senior hopes he can give the Badgers an added boost heading down the stretch of what the team hopes will be a national championship run.

"There are no limitations. I just need to be prepared for anything." -Traevon Jackson

"There are no limitations. I just need to be prepared for anything," Jackson said. "It's just a joy to be back on the court."

Though Wisconsin hasn't missed a beat in Jackson's absence, his return gives the Badgers yet another weapon in Ryan's arsenal, whether that comes from a starting position or off the bench.

"If he's physically capable of being on the court, he deserves some time," Ryan said. "I'm going to reward him for working so hard in the rehab and getting back because he deserves it. Now how many positions or how many trips up and down the court? That remains to be seen."

Despite the travel headaches and the uncertainty surrounding Jackson's role, the Badgers remain completely at ease in one of the most pressure-packed situations college basketball has to offer. Perhaps Wisconsin is falling back on the experience of having been in virtually the same position a year ago or perhaps the Badgers are benefitting from the ease of playing a game alongside close friends.

Either way, there isn't an ounce of stress emanating from the players in that Wisconsin locker room, each of whom seem as mentally prepared as possible for the task at hand.

"By no means are we stressed or worried because that just makes you play worse," junior forward Sam Dekker said. "We are going to stay lose and be ourselves, not make it anything bigger than it is."

But when asked if there was anything that could stress out this Badger squad, Dekker found an answer.

"If the Packers lose," Dekker quipped, "but basketball-wise, not really."