Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/22/2008 11:08:00 PM
Wisconsin's School Of D
Wisconsin held Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats to 39.6 percent shooting Saturday.
OMAHA, Neb. -- A Bo Ryan practice is a rare place where the lexicon of basketball statheads -- who consider points per possession to be the ultimate measure of a team's potency -- is regarded as old-school coachspeak rather than a foreign language. Wisconsin's defense, the foundation for its run to the Midwest Regional's Sweet 16, is typically evaluated, in 4-5 minute scrimmage segments that simulate gaps between TV timeouts, by whether it can keep the Badgers' scout team under one point per possession. "And if they're over one," says junior forward Marcus Landry, "that's not good in Bo's eyes. It'll be time to start running."
A Wisconsin game, consequently, is a place where this defensive meticulousness -- a philosophy that assistant Greg Gard says Ryan has held since his days at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, because it "provides accountability on every possession" -- is put into practice. The Badgers used the nation's most efficient defense (0.814 adjusted PPP) to win a Big Ten title, and then used it in the second round of the NCAA tournament to turn Kansas State's offense into a discombobulated mess. Against third-seeded UW, the 11th-seeded 'Cats scored just 22 second-half points in a 72-55 loss.
The unraveling of Team Potential, with its NBA Lottery duo of Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, could be explained by the fact that Wisconsin does not (in Walker's words) "give anything to you easy." K-State shot challenged jumper after challenged jumper, missing all 13 of its three-point attempts, and failed to feed Beasley (who scored 23 points, but just six in the second half) frequently enough in the post. But the story of the game could also be told through the lens of a few key series of defensive possessions.
The Badgers began the second half with a 39-33 lead, and defended the four-minute, 59-second stretch until the first media timeout so well that they yielded only two points in six possessions. They went into that break with a 46-35 advantage. Later, in the four-minute, 34-second gap between the final two media timeouts, when the Wildcats desperately needed to stage a comeback, UW gave up just four points on five possessions. The score at the beginning of that span was 61-49 in the Badgers' favor; at the end it was 72-53. After giving up 33 points on 32 possessions in the first half, UW yielded just 22 on 30 possessions in the second. Keeping K-State under one point per possession kept the Badgers from being bounced in the second round for the second straight season.
The beauty of Wisconsin's stinginess on Saturday was that it was "junk-free." Not a single second was spent playing a trick defense. All 40 minutes featured Ryan's trademark man-to-man, fronting-the-post, weakside-help defense that got the Badgers to the dance. Junior forward Joe Krabbenhoft, a gritty South Dakotan who bears the facial scars of a fearless defender -- he's had stitches on 36 occasions in his lifetime, including four under his right eye this season -- teamed up with Landry and Greg Stiemsma to keep Beasley from having a transcendent tournament performance. The Badgers also held Beasley and Walker's supporting cast to just 14 points combined, making K-State's offense tragically two-dimensional.
"We stuck with our rules, our system, coach Ryan's defense," said Krabbenhoft. "We didn't try to be any other team. ... We did what Wisconsin does, and we didn't change from being tough-nosed, up in your face, and [gave away] nothing easy."
Krabbenhoft insists there is no actual Wisconsin Defensive Rule Book that's distributed amongst the team -- just a set of simple principles that are drilled into their heads. "It's funny, you'd think as good as we are defensively, there would be all these crazy rules," he said, "but they're very basic." Those include: protecting the rim in transition (K-State had zero fastbreak points), weakside help in the post (Beasley said "I couldn't get the shots I wanted" because of the double-teams), contesting every jumper (the 'Cats shot 39.6 percent on the game), and staying in front of guards on penetration (K-State's backcourt created little on drive-and-kicks, combining for just three assists).
The rules alone, though, would have little impact if there weren't a high degree of synchrony among the Badgers' defenders. "The satellites aren't going to make the universe work," Ryan said. "And our guys rotate sink, pinch, all our rules that we talk about, the different things that we do; they have to be done in unison."
It is a truly surprising thing, much in the same way that Texas jumped from a No. 5 to a No. 2 seed in the year after KevinDurant's departure, that Wisconsin is going deeper in this NCAA tournament than it managed to do with All-America candidate Alando Tucker last season. It required, according to Gard, a mutual understanding of the Badgers' new identity, one with no player averaging more than 12.4 points, and the defense becoming even more efficient than the one UW had when it rose to a national No. 1 ranking in February of 2007.
"They know that our margin for error is very slim, and in order for us to be successful, we have to be a very good defensive team and unselfish offensively," said Gard. "They understood that we didn't have a 30-point-per-game scorer anymore, and that it had to be a group effort this time."
The Badgers do not have any players with guaranteed NBA futures, and to reach the Final Four they'll likely have to go through two more teams -- Georgetown and Kansas -- that are stocked with pros-in-waiting. An advantage in draft picks, however, does not guarantee a favorable outcome. The first item in UW's personnel report on Beasley, according to Krabbenhoft, read that K-State's super-frosh was "the best player on Earth, and it was going to very hard to stop him." Yet Beasley and the Wildcats are now out of the NCAA tournament, their talent having been slowly neutralized by the Badgers, on possession after agonizing possession.
"That's not why we've had the success that we've had in college, by marketing individuals. The NBA has done that, and I think they've been successful. But they're two totally different marketing schemes, and if we fall into the one the NBA uses, we fall a distance second in our product, a distant second. Because if you're marketing someone for one year and then they go, it's just the next new person." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in December 2007
OMAHA, Neb. -- USC-Kansas State. Coach K would not approve of this game, or at least not approve of how it's being presented to the college basketball public. Any time this 6-versus-11 showdown is mentioned as the best first-round pairing in the 2008 NCAA tournament bracket, it's not because the Trojans and Wildcats happen to be top-20 teams in adjusted defensive efficiency. That matters, but it's not what drives CBS' TV ratings.
USC-Kansas State is important because of the two kids who warmly embraced on Wednesday afternoon outside the Wildcats' locker room in the Qwest Center. O.J. Mayo stood at the end of a hallway and bellowed, "Mike!" --interrupting an impromptu Michael Beasley news conference that had developed against one wall. Beasley, in turn, yelled, "Juice!" and then broke away from a phalanx of TV cameras to exchange hugs with his fellow freshman phenom. They spoke briefly, but it was about a trivial subject -- their various hotel assignments -- and then parted ways. Thursday they will face off for the right to advance to the second round of their first NCAA tournament. By next week Mayo and Beasley -- as well as possibly K-State's Bill Walker and USC's Davon Jefferson -- could both officially be gone from college basketball, out of school and beginning preparation for the NBA draft. As expected, one-and-done.
Their coaches take the anti-Krzyzewski stance on the issue. Wouldn't you, if Beasley had just averaged 26.5 points and 12.4 rebounds -- and put up 26 double-doubles -- for your team? Or if Mayo had averaged 20.8 points and 4.6 boards for your team -- and increased your home attendance by more than 4,000 per game? K-State's Frank Martin is certainly willing to accept the tradeoff. "Look at what they've both done for their respective schools. Look at the attention that Michael Beasley and Bill Walker and the rest of our freshmen have brought to our program over the past year. We've set school records for being on national television this year. We're sitting here in the NCAA tournament. I mean, there's a reason why that's all taking place: it's because of the level of players that we have."
USC's Tim Floyd is similarly fine with the situation: "I think that has been the excitement about this year. If we're going to look back on this year, we're going to say it was the year of the freshmen. And understand that we're seeing guys that up until a year ago, with Oden and Durant, that we would not have seen from 1995 on, that would have been in the league without a doubt." (He did, however, offer one caveat: "It will be a detriment if and when O.J. leaves if he's not academically eligible and cost us a scholarship. That would be something that would make me review whether or not to give another guy like this an opportunity.")
You get the feeling that Floyd wouldn't turn down the second coming of Mayo, though, considering he already has another probable one-and-done blue-chipper -- L.A. guard Demar Derozan -- signed for next year's recruiting class. Coaches will beg for the commitment of the next Beasley, and the media will once again be whipped into a frenzy when he meets the next Mayo in an NCAA tournament game. Surely these players would benefit from another season in college, and so would the college game if it were able to market them -- rather than its coaches -- over the long-term. But even in their state as one-year rentals, it cannot be denied that Beasley and Mayo are highly intriguing characters. Each is the rare player who can step on the court as a true freshman and already be more talented than 99 percent of his peers, and with whom comes a rare kind of urgency: they will get one -- and only one -- shot to play in the NCAA tournament before they jump to the NBA Draft lottery.
Thursday, of course, is neither the first nor the last time Beasley and Mayo will meet on a basketball floor, or outside a locker room. They've known each other, Beasley said, since the age of 14, and he calls Mayo a "close friend." They played twice on the AAU circuit, once in high school, and once in the McDonald's All-America game, with Beasley winning all four times. This summer, when he traveled to Los Angeles to visit family, Beasley played pickup ball with Mayo and some of the Trojans, and said, "They took me in like I was family." And when the brackets were announced on Sunday, Beasley immediately sent a text message to Mayo. "I asked him if he was ready," Beasley said. "And he asked me the same thing."
"I said, 'Definitely.' Why wouldn't I be? This could be our last game. I'm going to fight as much as I can to keep him off."
Next year around this time, they could be having that conversation from different, distant locales, perhaps Miami and New York, in the lead-up to a meaningless NBA contest. And while that sad reality, from one standpoint, could be fodder for the argument against hyping them, it also reminds us of something: This is also our only chance to see Beasley and Mayo on college basketball's biggest stage. Try as we might to be purists, and resist giving it our full attention, it will be impossible not to watch.