Who needs to survive and advance when you can dominate and advance?
Wisconsin collided with an impressive Baylor team in Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup, the Bears double-digit winners in each of their first two tournament games. The Badgers had their own 40-point rout of American but needed a huge second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon.
But any concerns about a step up in competition were immediately alleviated Thursday. Wisconsin dominated from start to finish, grabbing a 69-52 win and a ticket to the Elite Eight.
Bo Ryan’s never taken his Badgers to a Final Four, but now only one win away from doing just that, is there any team that looks like it has a better chance of reaching college basketball’s pinnacle?
“Yeah, that would be a very special thing to do, but we also know that he's not going to let us look too far ahead,” Wisconsin senior Ben Brust said after Thursday’s game. “We also just know that we're going to get prepared for whoever we play, because in order to get to a point like that, we got to do all the same things we've been doing to get to this point, which is focus one at a time for whoever we have, and when that time comes, we'll handle it. I'd definitely like to do that for him.”
“It would be a great honor to do that,” Wisconsin freshman Nigel Hayes said. “Coach Ryan is a great coach, but we have to stay focused on A before we move on to B.”
That’s a good plan because it’s really worked so far. Take Thursday, for example.
The Badgers brushed the Bears away like an annoying fly, hardly bothered by a team with great size riding a nice hot streak. But the Badgers are on a hot streak of their own, one that’s now significantly hotter following the trouncing of one of the Big 12’s best.
Wisconsin had this one won from the start, suffocating Baylor to the tune of just 16 first-half points. Baylor shot a dreadful 31.6 percent from the field, making only two of 15 attempted 3-pointers.
Badgers center Frank Kaminsky outplayed opposing seven-footer Isaiah Austin, going for 19 points, four rebounds and six blocks compared to Austin’s 12 points, five rebounds and two blocks. After the game, Ryan credited Kaminsky for being the key to the entire offensive performance.
“Frank's had some games like that,” Ryan said. “We knew he would be critical against that zone. But we didn't put it on him like, ‘Hey, Frank, if you don't play well.’ I mean, we don't do that to players. But I think Frank knew from watching the film and going over the scouting report and us talking to him about certain things that he and Nigel, Sam (Dekker) and Duje (Dukan) were going to be extremely important in that zone, and Frank set the tone. The other guys followed along with him. So Frank deserves a lot of credit for being the zone-buster.”
Of course, this is a championship tournament, and logic says that with advancement comes more challenges. And that’s certainly the case, with Saturday bringing a 1-2 matchup between Arizona and Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats, who spent almost the entirety of the season parked at the top of the top-25 rankings, needed a late push to get by four-seed San Diego State in their Sweet Sixteen game on Thursday.
Arizona will be yet another tall task, but, as has been oft-repeated, Wisconsin has taken those head on all season. When the Badgers meet the Wildcats, it’ll be their third game of the season against a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin beat both Florida and Virginia during the regular season. So this is nothing new.
But reaching the Final Four? Even for a coach and program as accomplished as Bo Ryan and Wisconsin, that would be something new.