ANAHEIM, Calif. — There are certain givens for a team as it wends its way through the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Things never go as expected. Even if your path looks easy at the start, it never is. And the teams you play as you move through the bracket are really good, really hot or both.
Through the luck of the draw, the University of Wisconsin faced a really hot team in the Sweet 16 Thursday night at the Honda Center. In fact, Baylor might have been the hottest team in the tournament. A day earlier, Badgers guard Josh Gasser said the Bears were “playing better than anyone in the country right now.”
Most of the basketball world agreed with Gasser. The athletic, sixth-seeded Bears won their tournament opener by 14 points, but it was their 30-point rout of third-seeded Creighton — fueled by 63.8 percent shooting — that caught everyone’s attention ... and turned the second-seeded Badgers into an underdog in the eyes of many.
Then the game started and, not long afterward, everyone found out what a really hot team looked like.
In a game that was remarkably similar to UW’s Sweet 16 victory over LSU en route to the Final Four in 2000, UW dismantled Baylor 69-52 to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005 and earn a postgame pep talk from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. UW had three Sweet 16 failures since 2005 before breaking through against Baylor and setting up a regional final against top-seeded Arizona.
But even though the Badgers put coach Bo Ryan in position to reach his first Final Four in his 13 seasons at UW, that wasn’t what had people buzzing. It was that the Badgers put on a basketball clinic in their wire-to-wire, never-a-doubt blowout of the Bears. Their superior exhibition of passing, faking, shooting, defending, rebounding, strategizing and executing might have earned them the title as the hottest team in the land.
“It looks pretty good,” UW forward Sam Dekker said. “This was a team that was real hot, they’ve been beating people by a lot and they’ve been playing really good basketball, and we were able to neutralize some of the things that they did.”
Some things? More like everything.
The Badgers carved up Baylor’s vaunted zone defense so badly that coach Scott Drew was forced to switch to a man-to-man early in the second half. Indeed, UW’s 29-16 lead could have been much larger because even UW’s misses came on wide-open shots. Baylor’s man-to-man didn’t work any better than the zone and, late in the game, Drew finally resorted to Plan C, which was fouling the Badgers before they crossed half court.
As for UW’s at-times beleaguered defense, it shut down Baylor big men Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson in the first half and hot-shooting guard Brady Heslip for the entire game. Baylor’s 16 first-half points represented its lowest-scoring half of the season. And UW guard Ben Brust, known more for his 3-point shooting, limited Heslip to three points on 1-for-6 shooting.
How did the Badgers do it against a team that had won eight of its past 10 games?
“Fortunately, they didn’t play that well tonight,” Gasser said. “But I think you’ve got to give us some credit for that. Our bigs did a really good job. Isaiah Austin and their other bigs have been killing lately. They’re so good and they’re so talented, especially on the offensive glass. I think limiting them to one shot was really key for us, especially early. To get a lead on them and have them play from behind was exactly what we wanted. We just played a really good game.”
For a minute, it was 2000 all over again. In a Sweet 16 game at Albuquerque, coach Dick Bennett’s Badgers blew out another tall, athletic team in LSU, leaving the Tigers with a look of bewilderment on their faces for much of the game. The Bears were wearing that same look Thursday.
“We came out and were aggressive,” UW guard Traevon Jackson said. “We knew they had a lot of good wins, but we feel like we’ve been playing well, too. We feel if we can do what we need to do, we’ll be fine.”
It was the second straight game that UW beat an athletic team that was on a roll, and looking completely within its comfort zone while doing it. The Badgers had knocked out seventh-seeded Oregon with a picture-perfect second half in the round of 32 and followed that up with their stunningly complete victory over Baylor.
After getting over the Sweet 16 hump, UW has won 12 of its past 14 games and is one win away from its first Final Four in 14 years.
“I didn’t think too much about that,” Dekker said. “I just wanted to be a part of a team that was able to do something special. Before the season this year, we said we’ve got a group that we think we can do something special and we have goals we have set and we don’t want to sell ourselves short. If we do everything together and work hard every day and wake the next morning trying to get better, we can do something special.”
After Thursday, that certainly seems possible.