KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Stop if you’ve heard this before: Tortoise meets hare. Breakneck meets plodding. Wisconsin is playing a basketball game, and contrasts are being made between the Badgers and their opponent about the pace of play.
Blah. Blah. Blah.
Wisconsin’s players have heard the talk about their methodical and so-called dull style for years. With No. 5 Wisconsin (23-11) set to play No. 12 Ole Miss (26-8) in the NCAA tournament at 11:40 a.m. CT Friday, the Badgers have had to listen to it all over again this week.
Consider them unimpressed.
“If people want to call that slow, it is what it is,” Wisconsin center Jared Berggren said. “We don’t really buy into what other people think. We know that we have a style that can help us be successful, and we’re going to stick to it.”
The Badgers’ style has foiled several notable up-tempo teams this season. See Indiana (twice), Michigan (twice) and Arkansas, among others. But will that style work again in the biggest game of the season?
Ole Miss ranks No. 8 nationally in scoring offense (77.9). Wisconsin ranks No. 8 in scoring defense (55.9 points). While the Rebels haven’t scored fewer than 62 points all season, the Badgers have scored fewer than 62 points on 12 occasions.
Those numbers hint at the ultimate indicator of pace: possessions per game. Ole Miss averages 70.8 possessions per game, which ranks No. 11. Wisconsin averages 61.9 possessions to rank No. 309.
“Everybody is super concerned with how we play, we might be the slowest team in the country, this, that and the other,” Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “We’re not worried about that. We come down, we try to get the best shot every time.”
Ole Miss will rely on the play of guard Marshall Henderson and forward Murphy Holloway. Henderson averages a team-high 20.1 points per game, and Holloway averages 14.6 points and 9.6 rebounds. They are the only players in double figures scoring for the Rebels, but three players (Reginald Bucker, Jarvis Summers and Nick Williams) average at least eight points.
Henderson, in particular, appears to present the most significant matchup problem for Wisconsin because of his ability to release shots quickly and his willingness to shoot from anywhere within 30 feet. His play will put the Badgers’ defense to the ultimate test.
“The way we defend, we really work as a unit and we take a lot of pride in that,” Badgers forward Ryan Evans said. “It’s something that can keep you consistent and always give you a chance to win because shots aren’t always going to fall.”
Wisconsin, which scores 65.5 points per contest, is led by three players who average double figures in scoring: Ben Brust (11.2 points), Berggren (11.1) and Evans (10.2).
Despite the slower style of play, most pundits believe the Badgers should win. Nate Silver, a well-known statistician and outcome predictor, lists the chance of Wisconsin winning at 75.6 percent. As 12-5 matchups go, it was the most certain of his predictions this year.
Las Vegas oddsmakers also side with Silver. Wisconsin enters the game as a 6-point favorite, but those who follow NCAA tournament history might be wary of such a large spread.
Since 1985, when the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, a No. 12 seed has beaten a No. 5 seed 40 times. That accounts for roughly 34 percent of games, which is the same winning percentage as the 11-6 matchup.
A 12 seed has now beaten a 5 seed in 23 of the last 25 NCAA tournaments. That run continued Thursday, when No. 12 Oregon took down No. 5 Oklahoma State 68-55 and again when No. 12 Cal topped No. 5 UNLV. The only years during the last quarter-century in which such an upset didn’t take place were in 2007 and 2000.
“I’ve heard the talk,” Holloway said. “I hope this 12 seed beats a 5 seed.”
Wisconsin players, meanwhile, aren’t buying into the notion an upset was meant to happen. Much like talk about pace of play, they’re tuning out the things they cannot control.
“To the outside world, seeding means a lot,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. “In the locker room, seeding means nothing. It’s going to be a battle no matter who you play. Everyone is here at the NCAA tournament for a reason. It’s going to be a tough task, but I think we have the team that can do it.”