It was a surreal experience watching Wisconsin dismantle Baylor in the Sweet 16 to earn what I thought would be the biggest victory since UW's final Four run 14 years ago. After a fast start by the second-seeded Badgers, it seemed like the Bears rolled over like dogs. While Wisconsin fans watched students from Dayton -- and even Arizona -- flood the streets in celebration of intense wins, the Badgers seemed more business-like (nevermind the star power). That's probably a good thing.
Wisconsin (29-7) should have beaten Baylor by 30. The Badgers missed free throws, botched a number of open layups and had some inexplicable turnovers. It was good to get that out of the way. Because before Arizona forward Brandon Ashley's injury, the fourth-ranked and top-seeded Wildcats (33-4, 15-3 Pac 12) were the consensus top team in America. And even now, the owners of the NCAA's best defense are the favorites to emerge from the right side of the bracket to reach the championship game.
Is a workman-like approach and hunger enough for Bucky to punch his ticket to Arlington? We asked Kevin Zimmerman of Arizona Desert Swarm how he views tonight's Elite 8 matchup. Enjoy.
B5Q: Arizona has the best defense in the country in terms of adjusted efficiency, giving up just over 0.88 points-per-possession. I know what the statistics say, but what is Sean Miller's philosophy about which element he wants to shut down first and foremost: perimeter shots or points in the paint?
Arizona Desert Swarm (Kevin): The answer to your question is sort of both. The Wildcats are sort of like the college version of the Indiana Pacers and do a good job of running players off the 3-point line and keeping them out of the paint. Nearly 50 percent of opponent attempts come in the form of 2-point shots that aren't at the rim, while 24 percent come at the rim and 26 percent from 3. Arizona is good at contesting those many 2-point shots, too, which has really helped their opponent field goal percentage stay down. Long 2-pointers are ideal for the Arizona defense, and it gets a lot of them.
With Arizona's size and length, it does a good job of bothering shots at the rim, and that allows its guards to put pressure on the perimeter without too much worrying about getting beat off the dribble.
B5Q: Wisconsin, on the other hand, has the fourth-most efficient offense nationally (1.20 ppp) and perhaps Bo Ryan's most potent ever. We thought Baylor would have the edge inside against Wisconsin with his athleticism and length ... then Frank Kaminsky tore a hole in the Bears defense. Looking at Arizona's talented young forwards, what makes them better equipped than Baylor? Describe what you see as advantages and disadvantages for Arizona when Wisconsin has the ball.
ODB:Well, I think the zone Baylor employed really favored the Badgers. Arizona will go with a strict man defense that has some of the same tenets of the Wisconsin's pack-line defense. The Wildcats, as mentioned, can get into opponents' jerseys more and will try to disrupt offense moreso than try to turn the ball over. The Wildcats have thrived forcing tough shots late in the shot-clock, and they have the versatility to hamper the Badgers' bigs from getting good looks. That said, the key I think is whether Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski can be a problem for Wisconsin in the paint, or whether the Badgers can make him a liability by matching him up defensively with a shooter.
B5Q: How have the Wildcats adapted since losing star forward Brandon Ashley to a season-ending knee injury to start the month of February? What part of Ashley's game does Arizona miss the most?
ODB: Ashley's injury obviously hit the depth chart, but it also took an offensively versatile post player out of the rotation. Unlike, say, Tarczewski, who needs to be fed on pick-and-rolls or in the low-post, Ashley could make his own offense with one or two moves to the rim, and he could also face up and hit the occasional three-point shot. Arizona has gotten just enough shooting from Gabe York, a starter, and freshman Elliottt Pitts to keep the floor spread, but the biggest change since the Ashley injury has come from the other two freshman.
Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looked like the two best players on the court against San Diego State, and they offensively carried Arizona with their slashing ability. Both are also the team's most aggressive rebounders and also very good defensively. Both players are already capable of switching on pick-and-rolls and putting pressure at the three-point line, which will probably be key to stopping the Wisconsin shooters.
B5Q: Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell has been vital for Arizona this year filling a void at point guard. However, one of the few things that Arizona lacks is depth, even more so than Wisconsin. When McConnell sits, does that affect how the offense flows?
ODB: McConnell sitting may not hamper the motion offense in a big way because the Wildcats generally don't get too stagnant, but it does take the most vocal leader off the court. The point guard's presence is important in a real calming sort of way, and Arizona misses that when he's not out there. It might even be more of a defensive issue -- even though Nick Johnson is a fine defender and essentially the backup point guard. McConnell has been atop college hoops in defensive win shares all season long.
B5Q: Despite his subpar outing Thursday, is junior guard Nick Johnson the most important factor for Arizona? Or is it Gordon? Who's the engine for the Wildcats?
ODB: It's a tough question to answer because while Johnson is the heart and sole of the team, Gordon has played his best during this tournament run. Both of them represent Arizona as a team that's most dangerous getting the defensive stop and then turning it in to a transition game, but I think the answer has to be Johnson. If he doesn't score all those points in the final 2:45 of the game against SDSU, Arizona wouldn't be playing in the Elite Eight.
B5Q: Though Johnson almost single-handedly shut down San Diego State's last-ditch efforts by sinking all 10 of his free throws, Arizona is not a good free throw shooting team. conversely, Wisconsin is pretty decent as a team, but struggled with free throws late against Baylor. This Elite 8 matchup should go down to the wire. How have the Wildcats fared in close games this season overall? Has a failure to ice things from the free throw line played a role in any of the team's losses?
ODB: Foul shooting had a big role in three of Arizona's four losses, though the first loss of the year to Cal saw it go 16-of-16. There was some degree of clutch shooting problems (misses on the front end of one-and-one situations) but it was more of a general problem. If you shoot below 60 percent and leave eight to 12 points on the board, it's going to bite you in a close game.
B5Q: What's your prediction?
ODB: In all honesty, I'm pretty confused. Wisconsin has the ability to blow games open, and at the least, it has too much firepower to get up by 12 points and have Arizona fight back. On the other, the Wildcats have been a sneaky good offensive team. The Wildcats scored 70 points in a low-possession game against San Diego State and can get into transition if the Badgers turn it over (it would surprise me if they did).
So yeah, complete toss up. Really good offense against really good defense, so I'll just call it a 2-point Arizona win.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Kaleb Tarczewski, So.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Aaron Gordon, Fr.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G||Nick Johnson, Jr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Gabe York, So.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||T.J. McConnell, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 36 percent (67-64 L) 62 possessions
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