CHICAGO – There might be a reason the Big Ten opened five for six to start the tournament.
It wasn’t Drew Neitzel or an offensive Indiana explosion. And in the United Center it might have been realized with a Kammron Taylor firework display, but it certainly didn’t start there.
This conference is reaping early success on the heels of its defense.
“Yeah, anybody can answer that,” said Joe Krabbenhoft as he iced down his feet following No. 2 seed Wisconsin’s 76-63 victory over 15 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “Of course. Defense is what wins these tough kinds of games. Especially Wisconsin basketball – that’s how we come back from those deficits.
“And then our big guns knock down big shots.”
First defense, then shots; keep that in mind. Because while the local media marvel over Taylor’s run and the national pundits prophesize a near-future demise for the Badgers due to their scoring lapses, UW will continue to go out and try to win with defense.
In the opening round, the Islanders streaked out to a 17-4 lead behind an energetic crowd and hot shooting, then capitalized on the Badgers’ woes to extend the margin to 25-7 with 5:29 to play in the first half.
They only scored one more bucket before the break, however. And while nearly everyone in the building was awestruck by Wisconsin’s inability to score, something else might have flown under the radar.
UW was locking the Islanders down. Shy of a pair of Chris Daniels dunks, the Corpus Christi crew struggled to run its offense or find open looks. Wisconsin certainly was not getting it done on the other end, but it had effectively stopped the bleeding.
“Confidence is a factor in this game,” said coach Bo Ryan, noting how the Islanders’ start led them to believe. “But how about the start they had and they get only 27 points for a half? Don’t ever overlook defensively what we did, because our guys earned that.”
Ultimately, Wisconsin responded by putting up 69 points over the final 25 minutes to just 38 by its opponent. Of course the most significant run in that stretch came courtesy of a 16-4 Taylor-made hot streak. But focusing just on the way the ball fell for the Badgers would be to dismiss the vital importance of their defensive intensity.
Case in point: Philadelphia, one year ago. The extremely talented but wildly unpredictable Arizona Wildcats stunned the Badgers from the get-go in the opening round of the 2006 NCAA tournament. Hassan Adams and company sprinted out to a 35-11 start, leaving Wisconsin gasping to keep up.
When it was all said and done, Bucky had put 75 points on the board in a 19-point loss. But they never really found themselves in the game, as they spent it trying to play a game of catch-up rather than lock down defensively, cool the Cats and then get back to their own offensive flow.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is not Arizona. Not by a long shot. And had the Badgers brought their effort on Friday against Arizona again, they would have probably lost again. But the point is that Wisconsin did not let the game get away from them.
With the calls not going their way early, with the majority of the arena once disinterested now rooting fervently against them, and with the visitor hoop rim spitting up anything they could throw near it, the Badgers went back to their defense.
“They brought their all,” Alando Tucker said of the Islanders. “So you’ve got to take your head off [he later clarified he meant ‘hat’] to them because they brought it. They were ready to play. That’s one of the things, we have to get adjusted, we have to adjust. But definitely we want to make sure that, defense is what wins games. And it showed in the second half and towards the end of the first half.”
After Indiana put away a high-scoring Gonzaga Bulldog team on Thursday and Michigan State looked for ten minutes like they might pitch a shutout against a cold Marquette bunch, America is seeing the conference defense it may or may not have anticipated when bracket picking this week.
The Big Ten is of course bouncing back after a disappointing 2006 without a team in the Sweet 16. And after this year’s tournament came the annual cries from the Skip Bayless types lamenting the “unwatchable” product in the conference.
But unwatchable can sometimes be what the Badgers want. “Black Eye Krabbenhoft” – the Badger most likely to wind up with an eyepatch and a peg leg gait after a night of tumbling for loose balls – said a battle is what UW is after.
“That’s what we want,” Krabbenhoft said. “We want a fight. There’s so much fight in us right now.”
The Badgers fought in the second half on Friday. Sometimes it was at the cost of the bonus and foul trouble, but ultimately it proved the remedy to sluggishness. UW defenders banged with Daniels in the paint all night. He got his 20 points and nine boards, but by no means did they come easy – even if his dunks made it appear so.
Landry fronted him, Steimsma came at him with the body and Chappell provided relief. Managing to at least contain Daniels left his teammates without many open looks in the second half. Add to that the 18 points Wisconsin converted off 17 Islander turnovers and the offense literally did come from the defense.
It can’t be emphasized enough that Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is not nearly the toughest opponent Ryan’s bunch will face if they want to make it to the regional final, let alone their quest for Atlanta.
But the Badgers know that as much as anyone else. The thing to hopefully take away then is the manner by which they fought back this time.
“A lot of the people are doubting us,” Krabbenhoft said. “That’s what everybody’s saying. And we’re not going to listen to it. A lot of people thought maybe we were going to lose that game, especially after watching the first half. They were probably like, ‘Yeah, we were right.’
“So maybe we proved them wrong, but game one of six. We’ve got to play way better to win the next.”
But it’s sure to be a fight. Two more bruising Big Ten teams kept offensively loaded teams in check. Purdue triumphed over underachieving Arizona. And if Illinois had anything resembling a crunch-time scorer, they would have squeaked by Virginia Tech rather than vice-versa. The lesson we’ve learned so far is that while far from pretty, this conference has plenty of fight.
“Coach always talks about because he was in the army, talks about fighting,” Krabbenhoft smiled. “’There’s just so much fight in you’ [Ryan says]. We had to have that in order to win, and I guess we had enough.”
Enough for now.