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Badgers men's basketball: Improved defense to be tested in big way by Michigan

2013-02-09T05:00:00Z Badgers men's basketball: Improved defense to be tested in big way by MichiganJIM POLZIN | Wisconsin State Journal | jpolzin@madison.com | 608-252-6473 madison.com

The numbers suggest the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team has come a long way on defense since getting exposed early in the season by two of the most efficient offenses in the country.

Badgers coach Bo Ryan has been reluctant to make a big deal about that progress publicly, probably because he knows major praise would look foolish if his team goes out and gets torched in its next game.

Which brings us to Saturday's Big Ten Conference game between UW and No. 3 Michigan at the Kohl Center.

The Wolverines (21-2, 8-2 Big Ten) are an offensive juggernaut capable of lighting up the scoreboard on anybody. Yes, that even includes the Badgers, who will establish themselves as legitimate contenders in the Big Ten race if they find a way to contain and beat a Michigan team led by national player of the year candidate Trey Burke.

If only it were as simple as slowing down Burke, a sophomore point guard who leads the Big Ten in assists (7.2 per game) and is second in scoring (18.1).

"They've got a lot of guys that are capable of putting big numbers up," UW junior guard Ben Brust said. "Obviously, Trey Burke is their best player, or their most important player. … You can't get too locked up on one guy, though, because they have different guys that are capable of getting hot. So we've got to just play good team defense and try to get stops and secure the ball."

The Badgers appear to be much more capable of accomplishing that mission than they were, say, two months ago.

According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy's respected ratings, Florida is No. 3 in the nation in offensive efficiency. The Gators averaged 1.21 points per possession during a 74-56 victory over the visiting Badgers on Nov. 14.

The only team to produce a higher efficiency total against UW was Creighton, which averaged 1.27 points per possession during an 84-74 victory in a semifinal of the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 23. The Bluejays are No. 5 in Pomeroy's offensive efficiency ratings.

"That was so early" in the season, UW senior forward Ryan Evans said. "The chemistry, just the way we're moving, is so much better. Everyone's understanding each other.

"I'm really comfortable out there with all the team defensively. I think we're moving as one. That was a long time ago, and we've made leaps and bounds since then."

The numbers support Evans' claim. The Badgers are allowing a league-leading 0.93 points per possession in Big Ten play and have held opponents under the 1.0 mark in seven of 10 games.

The biggest feather in UW's cap to date came during a 64-59 victory over then-No. 2 Indiana on Jan. 15. The Hoosiers are No. 2 in the nation in offensive efficiency, according to the Pomeroy ratings, and were held to exactly a point per possession by the Badgers.

Now comes the biggest test to date for UW: Michigan is No. 1 in offensive efficiency in the Pomeroy ratings.

The Wolverines' attack starts with Burke, who can burn opposing defenses as a scorer and a facilitator, but doesn't end there.

  • Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 16.0 points per game and had six 3-pointers and 23 points in a 76-74 overtime victory over No. 10 Ohio State on Tuesday night.
     
  • Freshman guard Nik Stauskas is averaging 2.5 made 3-pointers per game and 12.4 points on the season.
     
  • Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III — the son of the former No. 1 pick for the Milwaukee Bucks — is shooting 57.6 percent and averaging 11.6 points per game.
     
  • Freshman center Mitch McGary had 14 points off the bench in the win over Ohio State.

"Who do you cheat off of?" UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. "You can't. And Burke finds those guys. If you're going to cheat off somebody and try to help the backside, he finds guys so easy.

"But they hurt you in transition, too. I think that's maybe one of the things they do best, is how they run because they stretch the floor and you've got to stop the ball and here comes Burke at 100 miles an hour and they're running shooters wide. They really can hurt you in a lot of different ways."

Although matchups will change based on switches off picks and transition situations, it seems likely that sophomore guard Traevon Jackson will draw the assignment of covering Burke and senior forward Mike Bruesewitz will get Hardaway.

Another key will be how the 6-foot-1 Brust handles being on the short end of a size mismatch with the 6-6 Stauskas, if that's how the assignments unfold.

"I've done it before," said Brust, who pointed out that he spent time guarding Ohio State's Sam Thompson, an athletic 6-7 forward, earlier this season. "It doesn't change the way I play. You've just got to play hard, get a body on him, play physical. There's really no secret, you've just got to play hard."

That'll be the objective for all the Badgers, who have another golden opportunity to prove UW's defense has developed into an elite one.

"They're going to make tough shots because they're a good team and they've proven they can score," Brust said of Michigan, which has been held below 67 points just once this season. "But we've got to keep them taking as many tough shots as possible."

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