The American University Eagles were picked dead last by us here at Mid-Major Madness after finishing 2013 with 10 wins while losing a pair of double-digit scorers and their head coach. Fast-forward through the season and here we are in March talking about a team that started the season 3-7 matching up with the Wisconsin Badgers in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
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No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 15 American
Round of 64, West Region
Where: Bradley Center - Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Time: 12:40 p.m., Thursday
Television: Tru TV
In order to adequately prepare ourselves for this matchup that nobody outside of Bender Arena saw coming, I had a nice email exchange with Phil Mitten, the basketball editor for SBNation's Wisconsin community Bucky's 5th Quarter, in which he answered some questions about how the Badgers will deal with the Eagles come Thursday.
Read my answers to Phil's questions over on Bucky's 5th Quarter.
Q: What is Wisconsin's biggest strength and how hard has it been for opponents to take away? (Could be a player or an intangible like "hustle" or "grit")
Phil Mitten (@hoopsmarinara): Balance has been the key for Wisconsin this season. The top six players in terms of minutes all score between eight and 14 points per game, led by Frank Kaminsky's 13.6 average. To further illustrate the point, all six have also led the team in scoring in at least two games.
Taking away that strength isn't easy to do. Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State limited UW to two double-digit scorers three times (all losses) in the span of four games, but that is a somewhat arbitrary statistic. Fact is, both Northwestern and Ohio State had elite defensive units this year; the Gophers were simply decent.
To replicate that success without superior talent, an opponent (1) ought to guard the three-point line passionately and (2) better have an big, active, smart big man to counter Frank Kaminsky. Forcing the Badgers to beat you with individual dribble-drives while staying home on the shooters is one way to limit the damage Wisconsin can do on offense.
The numbers say that American might be a match in those areas, but will the Eagles be able to handle guys like Traevon Jackson and Sam Dekker going toward the hoop as well as the better athletes in the Big Ten did?
What American does best is run its system and play its game. When the Eagles are clicking in their Princeton-style offense, they become damn-near impossible to stop. They do such a good job of staying disciplined and within their sets and their offense that it is hard to keep them from playing an efficient basketball game. In the Patriot League Championship we saw BU come out and try to run at a 52-shot pace and score 90 points as they had throughout the tournament, but there was American on the other taking its time, running the clock down and finishing the game with 34 shots on 56 possessions. It's truly remarkable.
Q: Who is the one player Wisconsin absolutely needs to play well in order to avoid a possible upset?
Phil Mitten (@hoopsmarinara): This is an answer I go back and forth on for the reason I just mentioned as UW's strength. In a general sense, Frank Kaminsky needs to be playing well for Wisconsin to be at its best, but the emergence of Nigel Hayes has provided a decent safety net if Kaminsky gets in some foul trouble. More specifically, the team is 14-2 when senior Ben Brust connects on more than 33% of his 3-pointers, 12-5 when shoots worse than that. But really the Badgers have survived bad games from each of their top players. None of their individual success correlates directly with the team's success.
No one comes as close to fitting that description as Traevon Jackson, however. Jackson's decision-making is still inconsistent. One moment he will push the tempo at exactly the right time and make a great play at the rim. Then, when it's time to buckle down and milk some clock, you may still find him forcing a three-pointer or dribbling the ball off his foot. Jackson has posted an offensive rating of 92 or lower in five of UW's seven losses. (Oddly, he had his third and fourth-most efficient games in the other two losses.) In the end, when Jackson picks his spots well on offense, limits turnovers and doesn't get into any finger pointing on defense, UW is very tough to beat.
For the Eagles to pull off the upset, they will need to get another solid game out of Darius Gardner. The Eagles point guard was a killer against BU, making big shots every time American needed one. Gardner is the primary trigger man in this offense and controls the pace of the game for Mike Brennan's team. If Gardner allows the Badgers to speed him up and get American out of its game, any hope of an upset goes out the window. Tony Wroblicky and Jesse Reed will need to play well, too, but nobody will have a bigger hand in the outcome than Gardner.
Q: The Badgers won't have to worry about slowing down American's pace. How have the Badgers dealt with teams that prefer a slower, physical game?
Phil Mitten (@hoopsmarinara): Let's first draw a distinction between slow teams and physical teams, acknowledging the two characteristics can exist without each other. For example, Iowa plays extremely fast, yet I would consider them to be one of the more physical teams Wisconsin played this year. Northwestern -- very slow -- isn't all that physical.
To answer your pace question, though, the results have been mixed against slower teams. Wisconsin may actually fare better against fast-paced teams. The Badgers are only 7-5 against Big Ten teams who prefer to play at an average pace of under 66 possessions (adjusted tempo). On the flip side, Wisconsin was 6-2 in league play against teams who played at a pace above 66 possessions per game, which is slightly faster than UW's pace (64.4).
Thanks to a few over-matched non-conference foes, the Badgers also posted a higher winning percentage (75%) in specific games with a tempo greater than 66 than those games with a sub-60 pace (66%). However, one of the best wins on Wisconsin's resume came in a 48-38 grudge match against a Virginia team that admittedly hadn't quite figured things out yet.
It's safe to say that Wisconsin's schedule provided great experience against a variety of styles from fast (Iowa, Indiana, North Dakota, St. John's) to slow (Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan, Florida). And the team has proven to be pretty successful in all scenarios.
The other aspect you mentioned was physical play. I'd say that some of the Badgers thrive on contact -- Nigel Hayes, Josh Gasser to name two. With that said, physical defense is one of the keys to taking Sam Dekker out of a game, and to a lesser extend, Kaminsky.
The Eagles have won their last two games by keeping their opponents under 50 points and the possessions under 60. When they have been able to do the first piece of that, the Eagles are 4-0. When they have played at that pace, they are 7-5. Wisconisn doesn't get out and push the ball quite like some of the other No. 2 seeds in the Tournament and that will play right into what American wants to do. The key will be to stay disciplined and within their game. If they do that, there is no telling how close this game will be.
For shot-by-shot commentary during the game, or if you just feel like talking, give these Twitter accounts a follow for Thursday.
Follow @JimmyKelley_ Jimmy Kelley
Follow @hoopsmarinara Phil Mitten
Follow @B5Q Bucky's 5th Quarter