ANAHEIM, Calif. — For all but one team, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is where dreams go to die.
Stereotypes, conversely, take on a life of their own when they hit college basketball’s biggest stage.
Take, for instance, the commonly held belief that the University of Wisconsin is an unskilled, non-athletic team that must control the tempo and play stifling team-oriented defense to have any chance to go places in the tournament.
Some in Wisconsin believe the Badgers shed that stigma with their more versatile, higher-scoring offense this season, but that’s wishful thinking. It remains the prevailing opinion for those who don’t see UW regularly.
Consider this media-room interaction the day before second-seeded UW was to meet sixth-seeded Baylor in a semifinal game of the West regional at the Honda Center.
Me: “This UW team is completely different than the ones you’ve seen in the past.”
Well-known national columnist: “Really? Because they look exactly the same to me.”
The Badgers can only hope the Bears are similarly fooled in tonight’s game. But even if the Bears are smarter than that, no big deal.
UW has long thrived on the element of surprise in the postseason, capitalizing on its unique style against opponents that weren’t prepared to play at its pace, defend for 35 seconds each possession or remain patient against its help-oriented defense. But UW needs no such crutch anymore.
The Badgers aren’t the most athletic team in the tournament and won’t even be the most athletic team on the floor tonight, but they have closed the gap enough they no longer have to hold on for dear life against quick, athletic teams. And with eight players in their rotation who can shoot the ball, including five or six who can get to the rim, they have more skill than many of coach Bo Ryan’s recent teams.
Ask Oregon about that. The Ducks have one of the nation’s quickest, most athletic teams, but they weren’t able to turn that advantage into a victory over UW in a third-round game Saturday, in large part because UW wasn’t horribly overmatched athletically. Slower? Yes. Out of their league? No way.
“I think we’re pretty athletic, too,” UW forward Sam Dekker said Wednesday. “We may not look the part as much, but I don’t think we have bad athletes by any means. And it shouldn’t matter who can jump or whatever — it comes down to playing basketball.”
The problem is, people who don’t see UW all the time haven’t figured that out yet. They still think the Badgers want to milk the shot clock and pound opponents physically because they don’t have anyone who can get to the rim off the dribble and guard one-on-one.
“That’s what we’ve been; that’s how we’ve won games as a program,” UW guard Traevon Jackson said. “But I think the basketball landscape has changed over the past (few) years and we’ve got players in here that can do different things. We don’t necessarily have to play a certain way. We can slow it down and we can speed it up.”
Still, the stereotype of their team annoys the Badgers “a little bit,” according to guard Josh Gasser, who quickly added, “But it doesn’t bug me as long as we’re winning.”
Today in a regional featuring four red-hot teams that all know how to play defense, UW will face a Baylor squad that is long and athletic. Many have concluded that UW will struggle against the Bears because of that. The Badgers hope the Bears, like most, underestimate their athleticism.
Asked if Baylor had the edge on UW athletically, Bears guard Kenny Cherry said, “Probably. When you have guys like Cory Jefferson that can jump out of the gym, Isaiah Austin and all those guys, we probably feel this way. But we’re not going to come in thinking that way. We’re just going to go out there and play basketball.”
If Baylor coach Scott Drew has bought into the stereotype, it wasn’t apparent. He noted that Ryan has loosened the reins and is allowing UW to use its athleticism more in the open court.
“The more film you watch, the more you’re impressed with how they got out and went and played in transition and how they look to score early,” Drew said. “Because definitely from afar, the thought process is (the Badgers are) more grind it out for 35 seconds and really, really patient on the offensive end. They still do that, but at the same time, they’re very good in transition.”
According to stats compiled by KenPom.com, UW isn’t even the slowest-paced team in the regional field. Of the four teams — top-seeded Arizona and fourth-seeded San Diego State meet in the other semifinal — only Arizona plays at a faster pace than UW this season. And not by much, either.
Still, old habits die hard. And the Badgers, well, they’re into shattering stereotypes these days.
“I feel like some of our players catch people off-guard and that’s always kind of fun,” Dekker said. “We may not look the part all the time, but we can get up and down.”
More than people know.