Badgered: Wisconsin tightens D in NCAA run

MADISON, Wis. (AP) Wisconsin has been badgering opponents during its run to the Final Four.

The talk at the start of the season was all about the new emphasis on rules to prevent college basketball from turning into virtual hand-to-hand combat. The goals: Limit the pushing, grabbing and arm-barring. Improve scoring, shooting percentages and the overall flow of the game.

One team, at least, didn’t have to adjust much, if at all.

Advantage, Wisconsin.

Changing defense was one less thing the Badgers (30-7) had to worry about during an already memorable season that has Wisconsin facing Kentucky (28-10) in the Final Four on Saturday.

”The thing about valuing the basketball, playing good position defense, trying not to give up easy baskets, doing all the things that we’re trying to do … I just think that our guys have shown that they’ve been pretty consistent with the basics,” coach Bo Ryan said.

There are more offensive options on the floor than the typical Badgers team, which has helped compensate for a defense that at times didn’t measure up to the program’s high standards. This year, Wisconsin is 37th in the NCAA in allowing 63.7 points per game – pretty good, but still out of the top 10 for the first time since 2005-6.

But the Badgers have tightened up in the tournament, allowing 56.8 points per game, eight less than in games played before March Madness began. The spread is similar in field-goal defense with foes shooting 37 percent in the tourney compared to 43 percent before the NCAAs. Opponents’ 3-point shooting in the tourney is 31 percent, down from 34 percent.

It helps to have 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky protecting the rim. Against Baylor in the regional semifinals, Kaminsky had six blocks.

Wisconsin’s style of play under Ryan ”is so unique,” said Patrick Chambers, coach at Big Ten rival Penn State. ”He does such a good job of playing hard without fouling, funnel you into Kaminsky.”

Like any good coach still in the hunt, Ryan will just as easily point to things to improve. The new rules emphasis, though, probably wasn’t on high on the list.

”We haven’t been a `handsy’ team in the past, so we just need to keep working on our positioning and our footwork,” Ryan said in December. Back then, defense was a work in progress, but more for those reasons outlined by Ryan than for the rules.

”You’ve just got to learn from it. You’ve got to kind of figure out how things are being called throughout the game,” said Josh Gasser, one of the Big Ten’s top defensive players. ”As the season’s gone on, you don’t really think about it at all. It’s just kind of part of the game.”

But opponents were adjusting their games, too, on top of dealing with the rules emphasis. Chambers said that high mid-major teams, especially, had to adjust.

Defensively, Wisconsin ”didn’t have to change anything” Chambers said. ”Most of us, I’ll say, had to.”

The Badgers rolled to a school-best 16-0 start before they hit a 1-5 patch in Big Ten play going up against competitors familiar with Wisconsin.

Penn State lost 71-66 to Wisconsin on March 2, but outscored the Badgers 50-18 in the paint, which had been a trouble spot defensively at times for Ryan’s club. It was one reason for Wisconsin’s midseason slumber.

This year’s team doesn’t look particularly imposing up front with starters Kaminsky and forward Sam Dekker. But the duo, along with freshman Nigel Hayes off the bench, provides more athleticism than the average Wisconsin frontcourt.

Primarily, the Badgers rely on preparation; beating their man to the right spot; and bodying up without trying to be pushy with the hands.

It is what made Oregon coach Dana Altman’s comment that Wisconsin ”puts their hands all over you” before the Ducks’ third-round loss two weeks ago slightly surprising. Perhaps there was a little pregame positioning in trying to sway officials; Wisconsin is second in the country in committing just 15 fouls per game.

The Ducks set the tone in the first half with an in-your-face defense. The Badgers adjusted before a loud, favorable crowd in Milwaukee and rallied for an eight-point win.

From the rules emphasis to in-game tweaks, they’ve fine-tuned on the fly all season to get to the Final Four.