By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor defied the odds and turned a nightmare 2-8 start in Big 12 play into one of the most improbable Sweet Sixteen appearances in the nation. The No. 23 Bears will prepare to earn their way to the Elite Eight against No. 12 Wisconsin at 6:47 p.m. today at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
No. 6 seed Baylor qualified for the Sweet Sixteen after upsetting No. 3 seed Creighton on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio. The Bears destroyed the Bluejays 85-55 after holding National Player of the Year frontrunner Doug McDermott to 15 points total and only three points in the first half.
The Bears shot 61.1 percent from the three-point line and 63.8 percent from the field in the win. Senior guard Brady Heslip, junior forward Royce O’Neale and junior guard Kenny Chery combined to hit their first 10 three-pointers.
No. 2 seed Wisconsin has been one of the most balanced and consistent teams in the country this season coming out of the Big 10 Conference. The Badgers had four players averaging double-figures during the season. That mark went up to six players averaging 9.8 points or better in conference play.
The Badger offense is centered on the three-point shot. Almost 40 percent of Wisconsin’s field goal attempts this season were three-pointers. The Badgers largely create this offense through ball-movement, which means they assist on over half of their field goals.
The Badgers shoot a solid 37.6 percent from three-point range as a team, and have five players who shot more than 80 threes this season. Senior guard Gary Franklin said Baylor’s success against a Creighton team that shot 42 percent from three this season will prepare them to face Wisconsin.
“Even though you’re focusing on Doug McDermott a lot, you’re focusing on the guys that shoot a high 40 percent on the perimeter,” senior guard Gary Franklin said. “So I think this will be similar to a Wisconsin team as far as guarding multiple guys in multiple positions who can shoot the ball.”
Creighton had five players who shot 39.5 percent or better from three-point range this season. Wisconsin has only two such players. In their win against the Bluejays, Baylor held them to under 21 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Junior forward Frank Kaminsky is a dynamic 7-footer who has the ability to play in the post or stretch it out to the three-point line. While he shoots almost 58 percent inside the arc, he scores under eight points per game from two-point range.
Senior guard Ben Brust adds 13.0 points per game on 38.9 percent from the three-point line. Junior guard Traevon Jackson contributes with just under four assists per game and 39.5 percent from the three-point line.
While Wisconsin was outrebounded by 1.5 rebounds per game in conference play this season, Baylor outrebounds teams by almost seven boards per game. The Bears recently outrebounded the Bluejays by 10. Whether or not the Bears can beat Wisconsin will likely depend on whether Baylor can contain the Badgers to one shot per possession.
The Badgers got to the Sweet Sixteen after beating No. 7 seed Oregon in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Kaminsky scored 19 points on 8-for-15 shooting. Guards Josh Gasser and Ben Brust added 25 points on seven combined three-pointers.
“What makes Baylor’s zone different is obviously their length,” Kaminsky said. “They’ve got Austin in the middle, who will be one of the longest players we’ll play all year. The athletes and length combined in their zone is going to be tough to go against, but hopefully we’ll be able to be successful against it.”
Traditionally considered a slow, grind-it-out basketball team, Wisconsin has emphasized pushing the ball in transition.
“The more film you watch, the more you’re impressed with how they got out and went and played in transition,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “Definitely from afar, the thought process is more grind it out 35 seconds, really, really patient on the offensive end. They still do that, but at the same time, they’re very good in transition. I think [Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has] allowed his players to make plays and use their athleticism. That’s what good coaches do: adjust to their personnel.”
Ryan enters this game with 702 career wins, six Sweet Sixteen credits to his name, but only a single Elite Eight.
Baylor will be playing for its third Elite Eight appearance in the past five years. Baylor will face No. 12 Wisconsin at 6:47 p.m. today at the Honda Center.