For the first time all season, top-seeded Wisconsin (34-3, 16-2 Big Ten) is an underdog. The West's No.2 seed, Arizona, has been the second most popular favorite, behind Kentucky, to win it all this postseason. But the Badgers have been here before.
The experience of beating a favored Wildcats team last year -- when the seeds were reversed -- will come in handy against one of the most balanced teams in the nation. Arizona (34-3, 16-2 Pac-12) can defend at every position and likes to attack the paint on offense. The Badgers are strong up front themselves, but need to clamp down harder at the three-point line where they are allowing an incredible 52 percent shooting (23-of-44) so far in the NCAA tournament.
We invited Jason Bartel, manager of Arizona Desert Swarm, to talk with us about the Cats' Badger-sized chip on their shoulder and who is the key to this year's version of Arizona.
B5Q: From the end of last season throughout this year, the Badgers have spoken openly about the pain of falling short against Kentucky and how that continually serves as motivation. Have the Arizona players pointed to last year's Elite 8 loss to Wisconsin in the same sort of way?
Arizona Desert Swarm (Jason): Definitely. I'd be lying if I said it hasn't come up multiple times this year. The goal from the start has been to get back to the Elite Eight and advance this time around. I think when it became obvious that Arizona and Wisconsin were both going to be in the West as the one and two seeds, the conversation got a little louder with each passing day that this is the chance for the program to take the next step. And this has been the Sean Miller Redemption tour so far going through Thad Matta and Ohio State in the Round of 32, and then Miller's former school Xavier on Thursday. Now it's the Wisconsin part of that Redemption Tour.
B5Q: Compare and contrast the strengths/weaknesses of last year's nucleus to this year's. Is it too simplistic to say the Wildcats swapped Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson out for a healthy Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson for the current tourney run?
Jason: I would say it's a little too simplistic to do that. The heart and soul of this year's team is T.J. McConnell. He has brought his game to a whole new level as a senior. This team is a bit more inconsistent (see losses to teams like UNLV, ASU and Oregon State). Stanley Johnson's not near the defender Aaron Gordon was, but his offensive game is far superior. And overall, this is a much better free throw shooting team, which could become a huge factor in a close game like this one should be.
B5Q: Every time I watch McConnell, he impresses me with his passing and all-around moxie. He's raised his game as a senior in many areas and seems to bring an East Coast swagger that Arizona needs. I saw some comparisons between McConnell and former Ohio State darling Aaron Craft -- do you see any validity to that?
Jason: I personally haven't heard that comparison, but that's interesting. Out here, he actually gets compared a lot to Sean Miller the player, and what Miller did as a college point guard back in his day. And the career stats that McConnell and Miller have compiled are eerily similar. And T.J. has said multiple times he wants to become a college coach, so him and Coach Miller are basically the same dude.
B5Q: Who is the player the Wildcats can least afford to get into foul trouble?
Jason: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, no doubt. Although he banged his leg up a little bit on Thursday, he's still far-and-away the team's best defender, and can guard anyone on the floor from point guard to power forward, and sometimes does all of that in a four minute stretch. Arizona will need him to stick around and play maximum minutes to be effective defensively.
B5Q: What do you think Arizona's strategy should be against the Badgers? Should they turn it into a slugfest and hope to win with a superior defensive effort, or pin their ears back on offense and attack the rim with their interior athleticism?
Jason: To be honest, they're at their best when they're doing both of these things. Good defense breeds good offense here, so they'll need to at least slug it out on the inside defensively, and Kaleb Tarczewski will be a huge part in that. But then that defense needs to transition into an offense that gets out fast, moves the ball around quickly and finds the open guy. The biggest slugfest of the year was against Oregon State, and that didn't turn out well. This is not a consistently-great halfcourt offense team.
B5Q: Many Badger fans know about Sean Miller's connection to Wisconsin, generally like the guy and would probably be glad to see him break through to the Final Four if the Wildcats were in any other region. How important do you think a win Saturday is to Miller personally and the program right now?
Jason: In a word, huge. It's the next step in the progression that he as a coach needs to make, and the Arizona program needs to make in the post-Lute Olson era. This is a program that prides itself in tradition, and yet it hasn't been to a Final Four since 2001. And with how great Sean Miller is, he still hasn't gotten over that hump either. And with a lot of potential NBA Draft departures coming after this year, a vast majority of Arizona fans that this is the best chance both of those Final Four streaks end.
B5Q: Care to make a prediction?
Jason: Of course. I think Arizona will win this game. I think it will be close the entire way, with no team getting a lead larger than six. I think that having a healthy Brandon Ashley will help change the course of history, and the Wildcats will put out a 67-64 victory and take on the other Wildcats in Indy next weekend.
Hmm ... encouraging news about the Oregon State fiasco. But that was so long ago and slowing pace against thw Wildcats is no guarantee. Ask Xavier.
Thanks again to Jason for collaborating with us before the big game. Find him on Twitter @jasonbartel or follow @azdesertswarm for all things Arizona. Wisconsin and Arizona are the first game this evening, tipping off at 5:09 p.m. CDT.
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