After beating North Carolina 79-72, Wisconsin gets the pleasure of a rematch of last season's epic Elite Eight with the Arizona, who advanced after cruising by Xavier, 68-60. The Wildcats have so many weapons on both offense and defense, and like Wisconsin, are very efficient teams on both ends.
Analysts around the country say that the two teams with the best shot at taking down the mighty Kentucky Wildcats are Arizona or Wisconsin, which adds yet another layer of intrigue into this high profile affair. Some consider Arizona's starting five to be the best in the whole country, and each player who logs a lot of minutes for head coach Sean Miller brings incredible value to the court in one way or another.
What does each Wildcat bring to the table?
PG T.J. McConnell
McConnell is hands down going to be the x-factor for Arizona here. He reminds me a bit of Aaron Craft, due to his great playmaking ability and suffocating defensive efforts. McConnell will be facing Koenig, an adept scorer and can really hurt teams from outside, so it will be essential for the Badgers to get Koenig solid looks on the perimeter to keep McConnell busy. The senior point guard is averaging 10.3 points, 6.3 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game, and has really taken on the leadership responsibilities for a rather young and talented Arizona lineup.
McConnell cannot really kill teams from behind the arc, shooting a respectable 32.9 percent, however that stat doesn't look too great when you consider the fact that he has only made 25 shots from deep all year long. McConnell led the team in scoring against Xavier, recording 17 points, and also grabbed 7 rebounds -- an impressive amount for a guard. Where McConnell can really hurt the Badgers is driving in the lane, as his distribution skills and ability to get to the free throw lines will make the Badgers guards conservative when defending him. If McConnell can get to the free throw line often, where he shoots at an 81.3 percent clip, the Wildcats could be in prime position to keep up with the Badgers offensively.
F Stanley Johnson
Johnson is the Wildcats' deadliest scorer. However the Badgers will have the ability to place their best defender, Josh Gasser, on Arizona's best offensive weapon. Johnson is a projected top 10 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, and although just a freshman, has shown the ability to play solid defense as well. The young wing leads the team in scoring, averaging 14 points, and also contributes 6.6 rebounds per night. Johnson hit two three-pointers against Xavier and also grabbed six boards. Shooting an impressive 37.4 percent from deep this season, Johnson poses the biggest outside shooting threat to Wisconsin's rather weak perimeter defense, so Gasser will have to cover him tight in the half-court and in transition, where his incredible athleticism may be the best in the country. Johnson tends to get into early foul trouble. It is essential for the Badgers to keep Johnson in check if they want to keep Miller from his first Final Four.
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
In my opinion, this could be the most interesting positional battle of the night. The ultra-athletic wings Sam Dekker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson face off in what should be a physical matchup. Dekker has two advantages over Hollis-Jefferson, however, as he is two inches taller than the sophomore and a way more efficient shooter whose range reaches behind the arc. Hollis-Jefferson was pretty quiet against Xavier, at least on the offensive end, only racking up five points in the win. But he did grab three steals. Hollis-Jefferson shoots 20.9 percent from long range and has only made six three-pointers all season. Long story short, Hollis-Jefferson will not pose much of a threat from the perimeter. The well-built forward does, however, average 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and is a magnificent defender, both in the paint and out on the perimeter. His combination of speed and strength may constitute a mismatch for most teams, but Wisconsin has a good solution in Dekker.
F Brandon Ashley
Ashley was hurt in last season's Elite Eight matchup and it seemed as if his absence played a major role. Like the Dekker/Hollis-Jefferson matchup, choosing Hayes to defend the senior power forward could present a great battle. Each forward plays well on both sides of the court and is a great rebounder. Ashley doesn't have Hayes' outside shooting excellence, but has made a respectable 12-of-36 threes this season, so Hayes cannot leave him alone on the perimeter. Ashley is one of the most efficient players that Arizona has, as he is hitting 51.1 percent from the floor. However Ashley isn't special from the free throw line, shooting sub-70 percent from the charity stripe. Arizona needs him to be more explosive and capable on the offensive end than he was against Xavier, where he scored eight points in 33 minutes. If Hayes can out-muscle Ashley in the paint and limit his easy buckets around the basket, the Badgers can gain an edge in the rebounding department.
C Kaleb Tarczewski
If you are wondering which Wildcat is looking for the most revenge in this game, look no further than starting junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, who allowed the Kaminsky to score 28 points in last seasons' Elite Eight loss. Tarczewski doesn't present a whole lot on the offensive end, only averaging 9.2 points and could grab more rebounds than his 5.3 average given his 7-foot size. Tarczewski showed some offensive skill in the win over Xavier on Thursday night, putting up 12 points and went a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line. He averages 3 personal fouls every game, so the Badgers could potentially get the monster center in could trouble early, shifting the smaller yet quicker Brandon Ashley to guard Frank Kaminsky. I can realistically see Tarczewski playing conservative once he gets into early foul trouble, allowing Kaminsky to torch him for another performance of 25+ points.
The Wildcats bench situation is pretty interesting, actually, as they only play two of their reserves significant minutes, those players being Gabe York and Elliot Pitts. York offers Arizona a great three point shooter, as he shoots a spectacular 39.5 percent from three-point land and caught fire with three bombs in the win over Xavier. The junior guard will probably lend quite a bit of support to a team with really only one starter capable of lighting up a team from outside (Stanley Johnson). If York continues his hot shooting from deep, it will be hard for Sean Miller to take the junior reserve guard from the floor. Pitts is the other reserve guard who plays significant minutes in Miller's rotation, and he has the ability to hit many shots from three-point range also. The problem is that Pitts is a liability on the defensive end; he doesn't present a whole lot of physicality and toughness, which is needed in guards who want to beat Wisconsin (See: Dez Wells and Melo Trimble from Maryland, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook from Duke)
Once again, this is going to be the best game of the NCAA Tournament. The starting lineups match up pretty well. The lack of offense supplied by Tarczewski of Arizona is basically cancelled out by the low scoring Gasser usually produces. It could very well come down to luck and bench play. With York and Pitts, Arizona has two very capable guards with the ability to shoot the rock efficiently. Wisconsin has a spark plug defender in Zak Showalter and a defensive stalwart and great leader in Traevon Jackson, who is still knocking off some of the rust that comes with missing 19 games over two months of basketball. Duje Dukan has proven to be a solid offensive player but quite the opposite on defense, as he is a significant downgrade in the lane compared to Hayes, Dekker and Kaminsky.
The most important advantage that the Badgers have over the Wildcats is the fact that all five starters and the three main reserves for this squad, except for maybe Showalter, can constantly knock down threes. For that reason, Arizona may not be able to match UW's efficiency and production from behind the arc, which should play into the outcome of this game.