Members of Bo Ryan’s family stopped by his house Sunday night to see which team, Baylor or Creighton, would ultimately play Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament the following week. But it didn’t take long for the watch party to create a slight feeling of anxiety.
Baylor — which destroyed third-seeded Creighton, 85-55 — was that good.
"You don’t beat Creighton by 30, but it happened," said Ryan, Wisconsin’s 13th-year coach. "That’s a pretty formidable foe."
In fact, Ryan said he walked at an inopportune time by his wife, Kelly, who was talking to her sister Sunday night. Kelly, he said, mentioned that she would be packing light for the trip to Anaheim, Calif., where No. 2 seed Wisconsin (28-7) will play No. 6 seed Baylor (26-11) at 6:47 p.m. CT at the Honda Center. The winner will advance to the Elite Eight to play either Arizona or San Diego State.
"At first I thought she was referring to the fact that she doesn’t need as many winter clothes out there," Ryan said, a smile creasing his face. "I have a feeling that’s not what she meant. She was impressed with Baylor’s play over Creighton. Who wouldn’t be?"
Wisconsin certainly will have no easy task against a Baylor team playing its best basketball all season. But it is the task the Badgers have been presented with nonetheless.
Baylor finished just 9-9 in the Big 12, which was good only for a No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. The Bears tumbled after enduring a stretch in which they lost seven of eight games in January and early February. Baylor, however, has won eight of its last nine contests.
The Bears play a 1-3-1 zone defense that features plenty of length and quickness, which creates trouble for opponents trying to find open space on the perimeter. Baylor held Creighton’s leading scorer, Doug McDermott, to 15 points. McDermott, who finished his career ranked fifth in Division I basketball history for total points, averaged 26.7 points per game this season and had scored at least 30 in four of his past five games entering the Baylor matchup.
"We’re going to try to move the defense around," Ryan said. "Try to be patient enough to find a weak spot. There weren’t too many weak spots last night. That’s for sure. But we have to probe. And who knows? They might play us man to man for 40 minutes. So you’ve got to prepare for both."
While Ryan came away impressed with Baylor’s skill and athleticism, so, too, did his players. Most of Wisconsin’s team members watched the Baylor-Creighton game together on campus.
"We figured out some of their play calls and stuff like that," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "But we didn’t get into it too much. Just watched what they like to do, who their go-to guys are. What they like to run against this and that. We didn’t dive too deep into it, but kind of enjoyed the game, sat back and watched. Baylor played a great game, and we’re excited for a test."
During Baylor’s victory, all five Bears starters scored in double figures, led by center Isaiah Austin and guard Brady Heslip, who each scored 17 points. Austin ranks seventh in the country in blocks per game (3.16). And Heslip is a player to watch on the perimeter. He has connected on 46.8 percent of his 3-point attempts this season (117 of 250). Only four players in the country have made more 3-pointers, and only seven players have shot a better percentage. Heslip has made 300 3-pointers in his three-year Baylor career.
Badgers guard Ben Brust, who set the Wisconsin program record for made 3-pointers in a career, hitting his 228th last game, was quite aware of Heslip’s long-range talent.
"Looking at just a little bit, you see what the coaches bring out there, I think he’s got 117 3s on the year," Brust said. "I’ve got like, what, 228 in three years? That’s a lot of numbers right there. He’s got me beat in two years. He can fill it up. Just got to make sure we make him take some tough ones and try and make him put it on the floor."
Like Baylor, Wisconsin is a team playing its best basketball at the end of the season. And, like Baylor, Wisconsin suffered through a tough mid-season stretch in which it lost five of six games. But the Badgers also have won 11 of their past 13 contests.
Wisconsin players recognize they’ll be in for one of the most difficult challenges of their season Thursday. And there aren’t many opponents the Badgers have faced that will possess the same type of length, depth and talent that Baylor has.
"One that pops out right away is the Iowa game," Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. "They got long athletes. They sub in a bunch of different people. They’ve got all different types of players. They pressure you and they make you play yourselves into bad decisions. Maybe we’ll be able to take something away from that game because we won that game on the road.
"But, obviously, we haven’t seen a team quite like Baylor, so we’ll have to prepare for their personnel."