Little things are a big deal for BadgersWisconsin hopes to overcome top-seeded Syracuse with hustle and grit
By: Jim Polzin, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One sequence Saturday night at The Pit summed up why the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team is still standing after one weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Early in the second half, with things starting to unravel for the Badgers, junior forward Mike Bruesewitz dove for a loose ball on Vanderbilt’s end. Bruesewitz tried to find an open teammate, but his pass went through the legs of junior forward Ryan Evans and appeared to be destined to go out of bounds. That’s when Evans hit the deck and managed to keep the ball in play, where junior center Jared Berggren secured it.
If it wasn’t already clear by that point, the play showed UW was willing to do anything it took to keep its season going, which it did with a 60-57 victory over the Commodores.
“That’s what we need to do to win,” said Berggren, who followed the hustle play by Bruesewitz and Evans by hitting a 3-pointer to give the Badgers a 35-33 lead with 18:08 left in the game.
“We’ve got to be the grittier and tougher team. You could make the argument that a lot of teams are maybe more athletic, more talented or whatever, but that doesn’t always matter. We don’t necessarily feel that way, but we know it comes down to those hustle plays and toughness a lot of times. That’s what it takes to win games.”
It wasn’t just grit and toughness that helped the Badgers book a spot in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five seasons. They also showed plenty of heart and a willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the good of the team, a point that was driven home by the five charges UW took.
“Talent can take you so far, but then you get to this level and a lot of things are even,” UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. “A lot of times, it comes down to hunger and grit and just flat-out fighting and scrapping and clawing. A lot of possessions come down to that.”
The fourth-seeded Badgers (26-9) will need more of the same on Thursday when they take on top-seeded Syracuse (33-2) in an East Regional semifinal at TD Garden in Boston.
The Orange overcame the loss of center Fab Melo to beat UNC-Asheville and Kansas State in their first two games of the NCAA tournament.
Melo, a 7-foot sophomore, was averaging a team-high 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots to go along with his 7.8 points per game.
Syracuse opened the season with 20 consecutive wins and followed a defeat at Notre Dame on Jan. 21 by winning 11 in a row before a loss to Cincinnati in a Big East Conference tournament semifinal.
Senior forward Kris Joseph leads the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game, followed by sophomore guard Dion Waiters at 12.7 per game.
Opponents are shooting 38.3 percent and averaging 60.5 points against the Orange’s trademark 2-3 zone, which many thought would suffer without Melo patrolling the paint.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday in Pittsburgh, where Kansas State shot 31.3 percent from the field, including 23.5 percent in the first half, during a 75-59 loss to Syracuse.
“It really bothered our team,” Kansas State guard Martavious Irving told the Kansas City Star after the game. “It’s hard to see over the zone and make passes from the perimeter. It’s hard to penetrate against those guys. Their arms are long. They took the ball from behind and closed the gaps. That is why their zone is effective. They’ve got tall, long guards. It worked really well for them.”
Vanderbilt went to a zone defense as a changeup with 6 minutes left against UW, and it caused some problems for the Badgers. UW managed just two field goals the rest of the way, but they were huge: Sophomore guard Ben Brust hit a 3 pointer from the left wing with 4:07 left after the Commodores had pulled within 53-51, and senior guard Jordan Taylor hit a 3 pointer late in the shot clock with 1:42 remaining to give the Badgers the lead for good at 59 57.
The good news for UW is it has some time to prepare for Syracuse’s zone.
“Obviously, we know what they’re going to do with their zone,” Berggren said of Syracuse. “They’re probably the best zone team in the country. Year in and year out, that’s what they do. Obviously, they have an extremely successful program and a big part of it is that. We’re going to have to knock down some shots.”
And the Badgers will have to continue to be gritty and tough, traits that got them to this point.
“Bodies are flying, balls are bouncing everywhere,” Gard said of what the Badgers saw at The Pit and what they will see more of in Boston. “You can’t take a step backward; you’ve got to make sure you want to stick your face in there.”
— Copyright © 2012, The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)/
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