ncaa tournament

Tom Oates: Much-improved athleticism of UW basketball team still elusive to many observers

2014-03-27T10:45:00Z Tom Oates: Much-improved athleticism of UW basketball team still elusive to many observersTOM OATES | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6172

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, 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.

Contact Tom Oates at or 608-252-6172.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(21) Comments

  1. Arturo
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    Arturo - March 27, 2014 8:36 pm
    "For all that had been said about the more high-tempo style the Badgers had shown this season..."

    - Andrew Wagner, The Sports Exchange
  2. Arturo
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    Arturo - March 27, 2014 8:33 pm
    "The wide-eyed Dekker can add energy. Kaminsky is a soft-shooting big man who can drive to the hoop. Combined with the athletic Hayes, they form probably the most offensively-skilled frontcourt that Wisconsin has had in a while. They're a big reason why the Badgers are a more balanced and explosive team with the ball"

    -Gerano Armas AP

    "They also believe the Badgers' reputation as a walk-it-up team is woefully inaccurate.

    ''Just because of how they play in the half-court, using the whole clock, you would think that they wouldn't score a lot of points in transition,'' said Baylor guard Sean Franklin, an Inglewood native and California transfer. ''But when you see them on film and see how fast they get out, you can tell they want to score right away.''

    - Greg Beacham AP

  3. Arturo
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    Arturo - March 27, 2014 7:20 pm
    "Bo Ryan's teams almost always have a huge presence on defense, but lately the squad has been opening up and running with more confidence at the offensive end as well, which means the Bears will have their hands full trying to keep up in this one."

    USA Today
  4. Arturo
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    Arturo - March 27, 2014 7:14 pm
    Oates and his lazy, tired Rodney Dangerfield just gets old. How about these "observers, with names.
    "All season, Badgers players have heard about how this is a different Wisconsin team, equipped with more scoring options and, at times, uncharacteristically poor defense. But the Badgers hope the real difference is a longer stay in the tournament. "

    "Ryan’s teams have traditionally milked the clock and played tremendous defense, which has resulted in low scoring games. But this year’s team is more explosive with scorers throughout the lineup who can play in transition and step outside and nail 3-pointers."

    Real people with names and all.
  5. Honorary Kentucky Colonel
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    Honorary Kentucky Colonel - March 27, 2014 6:02 pm

    Fair point, but the perception of Badger Hoops remains pretty much the same.

    And the most poignant thing former Packers coach Mike Sherman ever said was "perception is reality." Though he was likely answering questions about his horrid personnel moves.

    Don't worry, we'll be back here in 4 months addressing the same closely held national perceptions with Football.

    I have no problem playing as an underdog; underrated rather than overrated.

    "Never underestimate your enemy." Kansas & Duke made that fatal mistake this year.

    Go Badgers!
  6. w8rh3wk5
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    w8rh3wk5 - March 27, 2014 5:08 pm
    Referring to Dick Bennett doesn't make any sense. The game has changed drastically in the fifteen years since he has coached.
  7. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - March 27, 2014 4:45 pm
    It doesn't really matter much what the sideline browsers think, the opposing coach is scouting our actual team from this season, not the old stereotypes from the days of celluloid film. He knows what he's up against, and he'll make sure his team knows, too.
  8. GaryRobbins
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    GaryRobbins - March 27, 2014 1:53 pm
    Good Dog... - Signing players is more complicated than you may think.
    It depends on positional need and availability of scholarships.
    The UW thought they had only 1 scholarship to offer, and he was not a priority because of the position he played versus what the UW needed.
    You can't just sign every player that you think is good.
  9. profbadger
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    profbadger - March 27, 2014 10:28 am
    I believe it was Dick Bennett who observed that "75 percent of the game is played with both feet on the floor" In other words, running and jumping are important , but not as important and the game fundamentals. UW has been facing teams who jump higher aand run faster all years. The better basketball team still wins. GO BAADGERS
  10. seered
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    seered - March 27, 2014 9:27 am
    Same old thing, lack of respect for the 'team play'.
    But thats good.....should give us the chip on their shoulders to stay focused and continue to
    "surprise" the so called 'experts'.
    Report Abuse
    GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN - March 27, 2014 9:22 am

    The Bolshevik Badgers versus the Baylor Baptists should be an epic battle for the hearts, minds and souls of freedom-loving fans all over the People's Republic.

    The fact that most of the Bolshevik Badgers are White is not important in a true meritocracy. Maybe they're White Russians.

    But Bolshy Badger missed the golden opportunity at signing another local kid from Sun Prairie. All-time leading scorer, Nick Fuller went to the University of Nebraska.

    "How you start is important, very important, but in the end it is how you finish that counts. The victor in the race is not the one who dashes off swiftest, but the one who leads at the finish. In the race for success, speed is less important than stamina."
    --- B.C. Forbes.

    We saw that truth the last game. Stay strong, Bucky. Finish this. Final Fours await.

  12. Honorary Kentucky Colonel
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    Honorary Kentucky Colonel - March 27, 2014 9:09 am
    Hey guys, don't you think you're being a tad hard and judgmental on 'well-known national columnists?"

    Sometimes even local ones?

    According to "The General," "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things."

    This of course is hate speech and should be stricken from the proceedings.

    Duke, Syracuse, 'Nova, Kansas, VCU, Creighton, OSU, UNC, Witchita State, Cincy, OK State; they are (current tense) all "long & athletic," aren't they?

    Their Tourney participation this year appears to be past tense, doesn't it?

    I take this to mean that "long & athletic" isn't the be all, end all. But for this to be embraced by "well-known national columnists," that might involve a little, you know, actual shoe leather journalism.

    If Baylor continues to play like they did against Creighton, they'll be cutting down the nets in TX. They're going to come out swinging for the fence tonight.

    I don't see them maintaining 60 % shooting both inside and outside the arc.

    Bucky needs to control the pace of the game, keep them off the offensive glass, collapse their zone by hitting someone inside and kicking out or opening up backdoor cuts, stay out of foul trouble, and protect the ball like it's a launch code.

    It wouldn't hurt if they took a page from the 1994 National Champ Razorback's "40 minutes of Hell" on defense.

    High flying teams are susceptible to frustration. Per their unathletic, plodding nature, Bucky's fully capable of frustrating.

    But why take it from me when you can take it from 'well-known national columnist?'

  13. rockemred
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    rockemred - March 27, 2014 8:59 am
    This year's Badger team is different than those of the past. Wisconsin seldom scored in transition before, but this team will if the opportunity presents itself. This team also has Decker, who isn't afraid to dunk the ball and sometimes you even see an "alley oop" play called for him. Some things that are still predictable, Wisconsin's man to man defense, rarely will they play anything else (unless down by 10 under 2 minutes, they will press) . It would be great to see Bo just change it up for short periods of time during the game, show a zone, trap the ball, press, just something different. The other constant is Wisconsin's extremely poor inbounding of the ball underneath their own basket. It seems as though the only play the Badgers have is to throw the ball back to a guard at 1/2 court, or call a time out before the 5 second rule comes into effect, then throw the ball back to 3/4 court. That being said, I will be cheering them on, and it would silence the critics if Wisconsin can beat the "long, athletic, Baylor Bears".
  14. adamman
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    adamman - March 27, 2014 8:12 am

    Right now the team is in California preparing for the game. If they get out in the sun a little, they might be darker by game time. That should silence the critics.

  15. RedPine
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    RedPine - March 27, 2014 7:39 am
    The Badgers will have to win to dispel this type of largely justified stereotype. The perception of slow-paced BB has a long recent history here and this team will have to be seen several times to overcome that history. We now have a team that is very different than previous years and to Bo's credit, he's adapted very well. They asked Vladimir Lenin if he was in favor of using violence in furthering his revolution....."Absolutely not, this is a peaceful movement" he said. "However, if we ever get some guns, I might reconsider."
  16. nosidam
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    nosidam - March 27, 2014 7:21 am
    The Oregon game should have put a number of "common" beliefs about the Badgers to rest. They handled a fast-break team scoring transition points and a team that scores a lot in the paint. Despite folks' beliefs that the Badgers couldn't deal with either of these skills in an opponent, they proved they could.

    Why is Wisconsin's team mostly White? Look around, this is the upper mid-west and we aren't Duke so we don't recruit many players from outside that. Does it matter to how they play? No. Let it go.
  17. number6
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    number6 - March 27, 2014 7:03 am
    Is this merely a variation on 'white guys can't jump'? Oregon's probably still wondering what hit them in the second half. Yet another lesson this year's Bo Squad teaches us all: others' perceptions of you are not you. Valuable.
  18. hackvrod
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    hackvrod - March 27, 2014 6:57 am
    Let's cut to the chase. What these morons who say we are non athletic really mean is we have too many white guys. Heaven forbid if the shoe was reversed and we said Oregon or Baylor wasn't a team that made SOUND SMART decisions. Holy hell would break loose and the race card would be played. So a team in the nfl who passes the ball more than a team that likes to have more of a running game must be WAY more athletic? Someone needs to call these morons out
  19. adamman
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    adamman - March 27, 2014 6:34 am
    My thought for a long time is that Bo Ryan does more with what he has available than any college coach.
    UW doesn't have a recruiting advantage that many warm weather schools have. When was the last time a UW basketball player got in trouble? Or the program itself violated any rules?
    No matter what happens tonight, the BAD-GERS had a great team and a great season.
    That being said, I predict the BAD-GERS will lose tonight. Why? Because I'm always wrong, so my prediction guarantees a UW victory.
  20. 3cats
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    3cats - March 27, 2014 6:14 am
    Agree with your comments. "Well known nationally" used to mean a guy was on the L.A. or New York Times beat for 30 years. Now in the computer age, it could mean some guy blogs in his basement never going to a game in person.
  21. Fflambeau
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    Fflambeau - March 27, 2014 5:45 am
    "Well-known national columnist: “Really? Because they look exactly the same to me.” One nice thing about the Internet is that it has exposed most of these people and also, there are alternatives to their mostly ludicrous positions. You should have named the joker, Tom. There shouldn't be, as with doctors, a fraternity of silence toward those who are inept.

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