Substance over style
Wisconsin winning with system, not sizzle
Posted: Friday March 31, 2000 02:44 AM
By Mark Ambrogi, Special to CNNSI.com
MADISON, Wis. -- The Wisconsin basketball team fits the ultimate definition of team.
No Wisconsin player made any of the first three All-Big teams or even merited honorable mention.
Yet the unranked Badgers (22-13 find themselves in the Final Four, facing the second-ranked Michigan State (30-7).
"There's no superstars from the first guy to 13th guy," senior guard Duany Duany said. "There's no permanent starting lineup. It could be any guy's night any game. We depend on everybody to step up when it's their turn. We play together."
Junior guard Mike Kelley doesn't mind saying it coach Dick Bennett's scheme.
"We wouldn't be at the Final Four if it weren't for the system," he said.
Kelley has heard all the negative descriptions of the Badgers' play.
"I do take offense to 'boring' and 'ugly,' but a small part of me smiles," the junior defensive stopper said. "We're the bum on the street that everyone stays away from him because you don't want to see that ugliness."
But the Badgers are getting their revenge on those who rip their style.
"Now they have to grit their teeth and say but they are a team that knows how to play basketball," he said. "You can't leave out the fact that we're also a team that's winning. You can say we're boring and you can say it's ugly, but you also have to say we're a team in the Final Four."
The Badgers have won nine of their past 10 games to earn a spot in Saturday's NCAA semifinals. The only loss came to the Saturday's opponent -- the Spartans -- in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. Since Feb. 3, the Badgers' three losses have come to their Big Ten nemeses.
Perhaps the major turning point for the Badgers came when Wisconsin overcame a 31-20 deficit with 14:51 left to down the Hawkeyes 54-45 at Iowa.
"We came out in the second half and played extremely well," Bennett said.
The previous outing -- against the Spartans -- likely helped, too, Bennett said. The Badgers held their own before losing 59-54 in East Lansing, Mich.
"The Michigan State game and that gave us the notion that we really could play great ball for an extended period of time," Bennett said.
The Badgers play physical, tenacious defense and are very patient on offense. Wisconsin holds opponents to 55.8 points a game while scoring 60.5.
In addition, junior forward Mark Vershaw moved to the high post against Iowa. Since the switch, he is averaging 13.0 points per game to boost his team-high averaged to 11.9. "When Mark plays well, we play well," Bennett said.
The move outside has given Vershaw more open looks. Fellow forward Andy Kowske said it has added another dimension to the offense.
"Mark is such a gifted offensive player and gifted passer," he said. "To move him outside and make him a versatile player has helped everyone."
Kelley said there's another benefit.
"He's become a 3-point threat and that's drawing big guys out [to cover him], which is allowing for backdoor cuts and easier rebounding for all of us," he said.
In the NCAA tournament, it's been senior guard Jon Bryant emerging as a constant 3-point threat (16-for-38). The West Regional Most Outstanding Player averaged a team-high 16.8 points per game in the four games, boosting his season average to 8.4.
Bryant said his turnaround was spurred by not wanting to play his last game.
"I just didn't want to leave anything out on the floor," he said. "I think that helped my approach and gave a little more of an aggressive attitude."
That's helped because the team doesn't have a consistent scorer like last season's 22-10 squad, which was led by departed senior guard Sean Mason.
"In these guys, I saw that we were going to be rather terrible offensively so we would have to be great defensively," Bennett said. "We would get our scoring in different ways this season. We would be deeper, which means we would have a little freshness. We would be a year older and have spent another year in weight room and conditioning."
Bennett might poke fun at his offense, but he doesn't want to hear critiques of his style.
"I never thought our style was anything but respectable and sound," he told reporters this week. "It's only you guys who have doubted it. You're like the common fan. You're in love with the spectacular; you're in love with style."
Bennett prefers substance.
"I have never thought team defense, working for good shots and taking care of the basketball was out of style," he said. "I don't think that is so old-fashioned."
Bennett has recruited the perfect players to fit his system. They're not all the most athletic, but they have keen basketball sense.
Ten players average 10.1 minutes or more. Only Vershaw averages points in double figures.
The team's depth was strengthened during a demanding non-conference schedule. Wisconsin had non-conference victories over Missouri, Texas and Temple and losses to Syracuse and Wake Forest. It also had disappointing road losses to South Florida and Northern Illinois.
The Badgers lost four of their first five Big Ten games before settling down. They soon realized that they might not make the NCAA tournament and the thought gave the Badgers the ultimate incentive.
"We had a idea what we needed to do but we weren't quite there," redshirt sophomore forward Charlie Wills said. "When Coach said we have to win four out of the [last] five to even get a sniff of getting into the NCAA tournament and then we have to do well in the Big Ten tournament, I think that's when everybody said this is what we need to do. We started to get on the same page and everyone started rolling."Mark Ambrogi covers college basketball for The Indianapolis Star.