This marks the third Sweet 16 appearance in four years for Wisconsin. It's the first since 2012 for the Baylor Bears, whom Wisconsin duels tonight.
Robert Hanashiro/Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Wisconsin has been a model of consistency in college basketball. Head coach Bo Ryan is consistently mentioned as one of the top college basketball minds in the country and year after year, his disciplined, methodical ways produce a team that is a lock for a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament.
Baylor might be the complete opposite.
The Bears play open, free, up-tempo and a little erratic. They disregard the shot clock and shoot whenever they see a shot and they play a defense that is literally and figuratively a four-letter word in the Big Ten — zone.
"We are still working at it," admitted junior guard Josh Gasser. "It’s pretty impossible to figure out completely."
It could be a matchup made in heaven or it could very likely be one made elsewhere, but regardless of the profiles, the two teams are sure to clash — literally and figuratively — Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., in the NCAA West Regional.
It’s the third Sweet 16 in four years for Wisconsin. It’s the first since 2012 for the Bears.
"You scold to mold; You praise to raise," Ryan said of his coaching mentality, Wednesday afternoon at the Honda Center. "You’ve got to pat guys on the back at times to raise self-esteem or whatever the term happens to be the hottest at the time. You scold to mold. Constructive criticism, you have to be honest with them."
Ryan talked about the discipline of his football coach father and how it’s influenced him. Ryan does seem to be a model in discipline, but this season’s team has been a little different. It isn’t quite as rigid or as heavily based on Xs and Os — there’s a freedom and an adaptability to it that makes it perfectly primed to face a team like Baylor.
"You look at our roster, down the line every guy that’s out there on the floor is a threat to dribble, pass and shoot," said senior guard Ben Brust. "That’s nice to have out there and to know that when you’re going through warmups. If you look around, you never know which guy’s day it could be, and that’s good to have."
But big days will be needed Thursday. The Badgers (28-7) are relatively thin off the bench, which could be worrisome should Baylor’s high pace wear out their legs. Wisconsin’s efficient ball-handling and energy on the glass often gives them the edge, but if Wisconsin never quite figures out that zone defense, it’s possible that a team based on control may lose it.
"We don’t play against much zone during the year," said sophomore forward Sam Dekker. "A lot of the Big Ten teams don’t play much zone, so we have to be ready for that. We have to take advantage of the soft spots we see and exploit some things. If we hit a couple shots early, our offense will take off."
Since Ryan has been at the helm, the Badgers have yet to miss the NCAA tournament. They have only been knocked out in the first round once and never been lower than a No. 9 seed. The sixth-seeded Bears (26-11) have only been in the tournament four times since 2008. However, they made it to two Elite Eights, while the Badgers have reached only one under Ryan (2004-05).
The Bears would like to prove that they are a legitimately elite program and not a trendy favorite every few years. The Badgers aren’t concerned with that; they are an elite program and intend to do nothing but play like it.
"You just have to go out and play," Dekker said. "You can’t put added pressure on yourself because it makes it tougher to perform. You just have to go out there and focus on the next possession and the next play. If you do those things well, you will get out of the next round.