Jordan Taylor perilously wobbled, mere milliseconds from traveling as his feet gave out while cradling the basketball in the lane.
All game, Montana had struggled to contain the pesky, turnover-immune Taylor, and now the Grizzlies finally had Wisconsin’s star guard bottled up and caught off-balance for an almost certain giveaway. That is, until Taylor unexpectedly whipped a pass while crashing to the court to forward Mike Bruesewitz under the basket for an uncontested layup.
Taylor couldn’t help but smile sheepishly as he backpedaled down the floor, a 17-point lead in tow with less than 10 minutes remaining. Sometimes, being lucky is better than being good.
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If any play signified how well things went for the Badgers on Thursday, perhaps it was Taylor’s whirling dervish of an assist. Seemingly everything No. 4 seed Wisconsin tried during a 73-49 pasting of No. 13 Montana worked in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Albuquerque, N.M.
It was the kind of game in which every player in Wisconsin’s regular rotation contributed, some more unexpectedly than others. It also was the kind of game that suggests Wisconsin possesses enough juice to squeeze itself all the way to the Final Four for the first time in coach Bo Ryan’s 11 seasons in charge.
Sure, it’s still early in the tournament. And sure, Montana isn’t exactly a power-six conference foe. But consider the way in which Wisconsin’s top six players competed on the big stage, and it isn’t so outlandish to believe the Final Four is a possibility.
It starts with Taylor, who tallied 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists while looking like the All-American player many presumed he’d be before the season. Taylor made 6 of 10 shots and didn’t turn the ball over once.
Badgers forward Ryan Evans, one of the most improved players on the team, added 18 points with eight rebounds and made his first four shots of the game. He even drilled his first 3-point attempt of the game despite being a 22-percent 3-point shooter.
Speaking of poor 3-point shooting, is there a player on Wisconsin’s team who needed a slump-busting performance in the way Bruesewitz did? Over his last 12 games, he had made 2 of 28 long-range attempts (7.1 percent), and he hadn’t hit a 3-pointer in a game since Feb. 9. Yet on Thursday, Bruesewitz made 2 of 3 from behind the arc, including a shot that danced around the rim before dropping in, much to his relief.
Add in the contributions of 6-foot-11 center Jared Berggren (career-high seven blocks), guard Josh Gasser (12 points) and sixth-man sensation Rob Wilson (10 points off the bench), and the Badgers possess the firepower to win multiple games in this one-and-done tournament format.
We already know this is a Wisconsin team that will not beat itself, leading the nation in scoring defense (52.9) and ranking second nationally in fewest turnovers per game (9.0). The Badgers’ slowdown style of play under Ryan is usually good enough to stay in games against any opponent. Now, it appears they have the offensive weapons to push them over the top.
A look at the better-seeded opponents in Wisconsin’s East Region bracket shows the Badgers (25-9) match up just fine moving forward in possible Sweet 16 or Elite Eight games — provided Wisconsin can get past its round of 32 game, as the seeding would suggest.
The No. 1 seed, Syracuse, struggled mightily with No. 16 seed North Carolina-Asheville on Thursday, needing all 40 minutes to hold on for a 72-65 victory. The Orange clearly aren’t the same team without 7-foot starting center Fab Melo, who will miss the tournament because of academic issues.
No. 2 seed Ohio State already was beaten, 63-60, by Wisconsin on Feb. 26 in Columbus, Ohio. Taylor, Berggren and Evans all scored in double figures during that game.
And No. 3 seed Florida State, while hot of late, has lost games to non-tournament teams Miami, Boston College, Clemson and Princeton. Just like Wisconsin, Florida State has lost nine games.
The competition level is sure to increase with each round, but if Wisconsin continues to receive contributions from its entire team, the Badgers will be a tough bunch to beat in the NCAA tournament. And maybe that means Ryan can reach his first Final Four at Wisconsin.