KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In addition to being named one of the 26 hottest players in the NCAA tournament — thank you, Cosmopolitan magazine — and becoming a favorite Twitter subject of off-the-wall Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson, Mike Bruesewitz is Mr. March for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Every year at this time, Bruesewitz’s suddenly accurate jump shot, unruly red hair and ready grin combine to make him a sure thing for CBS’ “One Shining Moment” video.
But that also means Bruesewitz is an old hand at winning games in the tournament, having played on Sweet 16 teams the past two seasons. So he was speaking from experience this week when he outlined fifth-seeded UW’s task, starting with its NCAA opener against No. 12 seed Mississippi on Friday.
“You’ve got to be good on both ends of the floor to make a run,” Bruesewitz said.
That’s not necessarily good news for the Badgers. After struggling to contain guard penetration early in the season, UW became another in a long line of defensive dynamos under coach Bo Ryan. Offense, on the other hand, has been a season-long mystery for the Badgers.
At times, UW scores with stunning efficiency, passing the ball inside and kicking it back out for wide-open 3-point shots. At other times, the Badgers rely too much on 3-point shots and just keep firing them whether they’re dropping or not. That has led to long droughts and embarrassing shooting percentages.
The biggest mystery is how UW’s offensive production can change so quickly, often within the same game. Even when the Badgers play well on offense, it seldom lasts more than two or three games.
That’s not good enough for long-term success in the NCAA tournament, which is why the length of UW’s run is tied directly to the efficiency of its offense. No matter how well the Badgers play defense, they’re going to have to score because the droughts at the end of both halves that sunk them against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game will do the same in the NCAA tournament.
“If you want to go far in this tournament, you can’t just be a one-dimensional team,” Bruesewitz said. “You can’t just be a team that puts ’em up and doesn’t want to sit down and play defense and you can’t just be a team that’s going to sit down and play defense and not do anything offensively. If you look back at our runs ever since I’ve been here, we played really good defense and we were very efficient on offense. That’s the biggest thing. ... You’ve got to shoot a pretty good percentage. You’ve got to get hot at the right time and I think we are.”
Hot? Maybe not. But hotter? That much is certainly true.
UW’s offense took a step up near the middle of the Big Ten season when guard Ben Brust and forward Sam Dekker became more aggressive in seeking their shots. In the Big Ten tournament, two other developments contributed to another offensive jump by UW.
First, Ryan did a masterful job against Michigan and Indiana of isolating players such as Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren in the post and Dekker and Traevon Jackson on the perimeter, giving them room to attack off the dribble. Evans in particular did a great job of facilitating the offense, which was a new role for him.
“The fact that he was aggressive and not always shooting was really a key for us in getting wide-open looks,” Bruesewitz said. “His willingness to pass and make the extra pass and recognize when double teams were coming, when guys were collapsing too far, that was a big reason why we were so successful down there.”
Second, UW’s guard play has improved. Jackson’s growth in his first season at point guard, though he’s had ups and downs, has allowed UW to run its offense closer to the basket than it was earlier in the season.
“The No. 1 thing that has helped us grow has been the maturation of our guards,” assistant coach Greg Gard said. “That’s been key and that’ll be key. ... We’ve got to make sure we’re efficient. I think that’s the biggest thing is we’ve got to come away on every possession with a quality look. Whether it goes in or not, that’s one thing. But when we shot the ball well, it was because we got really good looks.”
The wild card, of course, is the opponent. UW shot less than 41 percent in 16 of its 34 games this season. Of those 16 opponents, 14 ranked in the top one-third in the NCAA in points allowed. The only two times a poor defensive team held down UW came early in the season when it was still trying to replace point guard Josh Gasser.
Getting away from the defense-oriented Big Ten should be a breath of fresh air for UW, but that doesn’t mean the path will be easy. Although it plays at a fast pace, Mississippi still holds opponents to a respectable field goal percentage. Kansas State, Gonzaga, Pitt and Ohio State — all strong defensive teams — are potential opponents for UW later in the West regional.
The bottom line: Even though UW’s offense isn’t as skittish as it once was, it will need to be even more consistent for UW to make a memorable run.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.