No. 1 seed Baylor (23-2) takes on No. 9 seed Wisconsin (18-12) at 1:40 on Sunday in Hinkle Arena (Butler’s arena). The game airs on CBS.
Wisconsin is ranked highly on the analytics sites. The Badgers are No. 10 on KenPom, Torvik and Evan Miya. The Badgers have a ton of close loses, and those sites believe the Badgers are much better than the record.
Baylor opened as a five point favorite. At publication time, Baylor is up to a 6.5 point favorite, which indicates that gamblers like the Bears.
There’s no doubt Wisconsin underachieved in the regular season. The Badgers ranked No. 3 among power six conference teams in returning experience. They had an early double digit win against Loyola and started Big 10 play 2-0 after drubbing of Michigan State. With Illinois’ mediocre non-conference performance, they seemed like the possible class of the Big 10.
Before eviscerating North Carolina in the opening game, Wisconsin couldn’t win against good teams to end the campaign. The Badgers finished the season 4-8. Their only wins in that stretch were against Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern.
That slide ignored how close Wisconsin seemed, at times. The Badgers lost by single digits to Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Iowa (x2). A few different possessions, and suddenly this team looks a lot more like Illinois than a 4-8 team.
This is all a long way of saying that Wisconsin is a very good team. KenPom and the analytics sites might overrate them a bit. Fine. But how much lower should Wisconsin be? The Badgers entered the season No. 7 in the AP Top 25. Plenty of studies show that teams that overperform in the tournament are often the ones ranked highly in the preseason. Eventually the teams we expected to be good can figure it out. Wisconsin might have on Friday.
As everyone panicked about a mediocre North Carolina team, I told everyone that Wisconsin would beat the Tar Heels. Sure enough, the Badgers blasted them by 23 (focus on that prediction and not my take that Loyola will beat Illinois when Illinois beats them by 20 tomorrow).
With a long intro, let’s look at playing offense against the opponent, then we’ll turn to defense.
Wisconsin doesn’t foul much, and focuses on making shots difficult for opponents. It won’t turn opponents over as a result, but with the No. 12 defense, the tradeoff is worth it for the Badgers.
While frequently playing big men, Wisconsin will drop them into the paint, which means some teams will settle for 2-point jumpers when the Wisconsin big man is back. Check out this chart from CBB Analytics:
Over the full season, Wisconsin might be a bit lucky. They’re in the 99th percentile in 2-point defense from the left elbow, as opponents have made just 19.5% of those shots. Even around the perimeter, Wisconsin seems a bit lucky that opponents are shooting so poorly from those various 3-point zones. Team defense usually wouldn’t provide much explanation for shooting outside of the rim. Maybe the Badgers face the crushing power of variance as Adam Flagler, Macio Teague and Jared Butler rain mid-range shots, and Davion Mitchell gets to the rim.
My guess is that Baylor will try to put Wisconsin in as many middle ball screens as possible. The Badgers will sometimes have the weak-side defender tag the roller. They may not against Baylor, figuring that Baylor’s big men present less of a challenge than a rolling Kofi Cockburn, Luka Garza, Trevion Williams or Hunter Dickinson. The Badgers could trap or bring the big man out a bit. Most teams defend Baylor that way, though it’s tough to change your identity. Elaine had a boyfriend with the same name as a serial killer in Seinfeld, and she suggested a name change. The constant bickering ended the relationship, as changing someone’s identity isn’t a quick or easy move. And trying to negotiate the timing on pick-and-roll defense—when the Badger’s defense has been good all season—creates the possibility of too much acrimony on the sport’s biggest stage. Illinois made life tough for Wisconsin’s drop defense though:
The drop defense also gives up a lot of floaters:
The Bears love floating more than a casual swimmer:
I really don’t know if Wisconsin will try and stay in drop coverage. Illinois did, and Baylor just crushed that:
If I’m Wisconsin, I would not drop in pick-and-roll coverage. Their bigs aren’t completely immobile. But when they come up high, the Badgers can be had in the coroner as they generally like to tag:
Maybe Wisconsin just switches screens. They can always try and recover and gamble the bigs won’t score. But I wouldn’t want to put my big men on an island against Baylor’s guards.
I’m guessing Wisconsin will show on ball screens. The big man will likely come out to limit Baylor’s guards. And then Wisconsin will live with providing a limited tag of Baylor’s rolling big man. The Badgers can certainly guard Baylor’s bigs straight up. But they can’t guard Baylor’s guards in the same way.
While I think Baylor is likely going to get quality shots against Wisconsin, the Bears have their own problems handling Wisconsin.
Micah Potter is a 6-foot-10 center who can step out and hit threes. He hit 39% of his 98 attempts this season. The Bears like to fly around and plot the big man in the paint (though Baylor mixes pick-and-roll defenses and rarely drops) in non pick-and-roll settings. So we’ll see how Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua handle having to play more on the perimeter. Both men looked quicker than they had post-pause inside Lucas Oil on Friday. But there’s something different about staying active and stopping a big man from shooting threes:
Beyond Potter, Wisconsin’s guards are old and good. D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison played a combined 61 minutes in November of 2017 against Baylor. Both guards can post up (though Davison has been awful near the rim, compared to usual; I view that as something that is not definitive. Davison could really play better near the hoop, and the Badgers could improve) and Trice is lighting quick getting shots off and one of the best tough shot makers in the sport.
Focus too much on the post, and Wisconsin can drain threes. It went 13-27 from deep against North Carolina. The Badgers are good from almost anywhere beyond the arc, as CBB Analytics data shows:
Another challenge defending Wisconsin is that the Badgers will fire triples and make them when the defense is in a relatively good spot:
The Badgers will mix in a variety of sets. They will move the ball a lot—as they have for years—and try and force Baylor’s bigs to guard them in space.
Wisconsin will present the challenge Baylor has faced all year: can the Fival (Mark Vital at the five) play extended minutes against a bigger team. Thamba’s played his best basketball of the season since the return. And Tchamwa Tchatchoua looked about as good as he had all season against Hartford. Vital fouled out in 11 minutes yesterday. Maybe that lineup ends with Wisconsin. Ted Cruz found that Wisconsin can ruin dreams.
But I think Baylor’s best bet is to just stay smaller and ask the guards to front and hold position until a double arrives in the post. The Bears should adopt a rule that once Butler picks up a foul, he’s not allowed to jump and contest shots in the paint in the first half. The Bears can surrender a bucket or two that way to ensure he plays longer on offense.
Ultimately the Bears will probably—though my body clock is shot with Indianapolis adopting Eastern time (seriously this entire state belongs on Central time)—play the Fival a bit. The Badgers are difficult to turn over, but the Bears need someone ready to contest everything. That’s much more likely to happen down-sizing with Vital at the five and another guard out there.
It’s always tough to predict games, especially in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State nearly won the Big 10, then the Buckeyes lost to Oral Roberts. UNT beat Purdue—with a heavily Purdue crowd in Lucas Oil—after Purdue seemed primed for a run.
Some will view the above paragraph, and Wisconsin’s middling record, as evidence this team, and perhaps the Big 10, can’t hang with athletic teams. While I wouldn’t foreclose that possibility, I think it’s overblown. Wisconsin fell in a bevy of close games, and the Badgers really did underachieve. Talent is the currency of college basketball, and the Badgers have enough of it to win this game.
KenPom gives Wisconsin a 36% chance to win. Those are about the odds it rains in Dallas on a randomly chosen day in May. If the Badgers get hot from three—say shooting 45%, a high but not unobtainable number—then it’s more likely than not that Wisconsin once agains wins a second round game against a No. 1 seed (they beat Villanova’s No. 1 team in 2017).
Despite those caveats—and man were there a lot—I think Baylor’s offense is just better than what Wisconsin’s offense can do to Baylor. The Bears will make life a disaster for the Badgers, and the Badgers will face difficult decisions. They don’t have a Davion Mitchell to shut someone down, even if one of their guards could outscore Butler or Teague in a single contest.
With Baylor’s offense getting hot from three, I’ll take Baylor 72-65.
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