Wisconsin dominates Baylor with confidence, mental toughness

Badgers guard Ben Brust celebrates during the first half of Wisconsin's Sweet 16 win over Baylor in the NCAA tournament on Thursday. Brust finished with 14 points.

Harry How/Getty Images

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A standard narrative has hovered over Wisconsin’s basketball program for years based, in part, on worn ideas about overachieving while being under-athletic. So it wasn’t a surprise that such talk once again permeated through the Honda Center before the Badgers’ Sweet 16 matchup Thursday night against Baylor. 

This Baylor team had a 7-foot-1 center, Isaiah Austin, who’d tallied as many blocked shots as Wisconsin’s entire team. The Bears also had a 6-8, 270-pound forward, Rico Gathers, who looked more like an NFL tight end. And he only came off the bench.

Couple the personnel with Baylor’s recent run of success, and . . . you know where this is headed.

"Our team kind of fails that eye test, if you know what I mean," Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. "You look at our team and you look at their team on the court, no knowledge of anything before, who do you think they’re going to pick? They’re going to say the tall, athletic guys are probably going to win this one."

But what makes this Wisconsin team different, what separates it from the so-called mold of past Badgers teams, is that any preconceived barriers about height, talent or quickness are irrelevant. This year’s team possesses all the traits necessary to achieve something special in March — and perhaps even April.

For further proof, see the result from Thursday night, when No. 2 seed Wisconsin obliterated No. 6 seed Baylor, 69-52, inside the Honda Center in an NCAA tournament West Region game that was never really close. Wisconsin, which advanced to its first Elite Eight appearance since 2005, will play No. 1 seed Arizona on Saturday with a Final Four berth on the line.

Just four days earlier, Baylor destroyed Creighton in the third round by 30 points with a tenacious 1-3-1 zone defense, and the Bears appeared headed for a deep run in the tournament. With point guard Kenny Chery back after a turf toe injury, Baylor had won 11 of 13 games.

"They had some impressive games as of late, just blowing some teams out of the water," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "They’re one of the hottest teams. Everyone was saying you don’t want to match up with Baylor. But we’re the type of team that wants to play the good teams. We’re not going to back down from them.

"When you can have that mentality that you’re coming in as the better team and you’re confident, we’re not going to back down from these guys, it makes it much easier. We have a group that together has a collective toughness to it. We were able to do that tonight."

Wisconsin’s efficient offensive onslaught began less than two minutes in, when Kaminsky scored twice in the post on his way to a monster game (19 points, six blocks) to give Wisconsin the edge for good. Baylor led for all of 20 seconds before the wheels slowly fell off.

Badgers 69, Bears 52

Wisconsin used extreme patience against Baylor’s 1-3-1 zone, working the ball around the perimeter, inside the lane and out. The Badgers put on a clinic in the art of pump fakes, shot fakes and ball movement to grind the Bears’ defense into a messy pulp.

"The middle was wide open the whole game," Badgers guard Bronson Koenig said.

In fact, Wisconsin so thoroughly dominated Baylor that the Bears were forced to ditch their zone defense in favor of man to man. The move did little to stop Wisconsin.

Badgers coach Bo Ryan, a man who has prided himself over the years on focusing on the basics, did not change a thing about his team’s preparation. Wisconsin used the same techniques and also demonstrated its surprising (to some) athleticism and quickness on defense.

"We knew nobody makes more ball fakes and pump fakes than Wisconsin," Ryan said. "It’s just something that the high school teams I coached, we did it then. We did it in Platteville. We did it in Milwaukee, and we do it in Wisconsin. Shot fakes, ball fakes work. Having played quarterback, pump fakes work. It’s not that hard, and yet it’s amazing how many people do not use them."

A moment that perhaps best encapsulated the night came with 3:39 left in the first half, when Badgers forward Nigel Hayes converted a layup and drew the second foul on Austin, who slammed his goggles down in frustration when he went back to the Baylor bench. The shot put Wisconsin ahead, 25-11, at the final TV timeout of the half.

Baylor’s performance was stunningly poor, and the Bears tallied as many turnovers (five) as made field goals in the first half to fall behind 29-16 at the break.

Wisconsin’s passing was so precise that, at times, it resembled something you might see at a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals exhibition. On one occasion midway through the second half, for example, Hayes posted up and found a cutting Josh Gasser, who tossed to the other block to Duje Dukan, who whipped a pass to Ben Brust for a straight-on 3-pointer that gave Wisconsin a 51-30 lead.

It was basketball at its prettiest. And just another example of Wisconsin’s capabilities this season, even against opponents with seemingly more physical advantages.

"There’s definitely some discrepancies with the length and the size of the teams we play," Brust said. "But we know that if we play good basketball and do the things we do to be successful, it helps us."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter