Previewing Albuquerque: Afternoon games

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
2:15
AM ET
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A look at Thursday's early games at New Mexico's famed Pit:

No. 4 Wisconsin (24-9) vs. No. 13 Montana (25-6), 2:10 p.m. ET

This may be Wisconsin's worst team under Bo Ryan. Yet he's still in the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed with a solid chance to advance to the third round and possibly the Sweet 16. That's how good the system is for Ryan and the players he has found to flourish.

The Badgers lost an unprecedented three home games and still finished strong enough to win at Purdue and knock off Ohio State on the road to earn a No. 4 seed.

"We just have to stick with what we've been doing all year long,'' said Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor. "I know based on the numbers or whatever, it is, I think you could say everybody plays at a quicker tempo based on the possessions or whatever you want. But it's not like we're trying to slow it down or anything or are looking to drag out the shot clock. We're just trying to get a good shot every time down. It's been working for the most part.''

Wisconsin may want to limit possessions. Montana will want to increase them. The Grizzlies will want to push the tempo and had no problems running Weber State and Damian Lillard out of the Big Sky tournament. Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said this team is better than the one two years ago that narrowly lost to New Mexico in the first round. Montana has won 14 straight, and the backcourt of Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar will push the Badgers as much as any in the Big Ten.

"They've got a lot of shooters,'' Taylor said. "They're pretty good defensively, especially Will Cherry.''

The bigs of Montana are much like Wisconsin's, with the ability to stretch the floor by making perimeter shots. But they have maybe even more of a rugged side to their on-court existence.

Cherry said he grasps that the Badgers put five players on the court who can all pass.

"If we can try to use our length on the defensive end and our speed and athleticism against them, I feel like we could speed them up,'' Cherry said.

The problem is the Badgers don't turn the ball over much and play with more control.

The last time Wisconsin played at the Pit, it went to the 2000 Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Purdue.

"I hope we can definitely carry some of that good karma,'' said Wisconsin's Jared Berggren. "Our coaches talked about it a little bit. We hope to make some more good memories here and advance to the next round.''

Three players to watch

Jordan Taylor, 6-1, Sr., Wisconsin: Taylor has the ability to take over a game and score in bunches. But he also can go through droughts. He's a steady lead guard who needs the ball in his hands to steer this offense.

Jared Berggren, 6-10, Jr., Wisconsin: Berggren can knock down the deep 3-pointer and really stretch the Grizzlies' defense. If he starts making face-up shots and pulls Derek Selvig away from the basket, then the Badgers are in good shape.

Will Cherry, 6-1, Jr., Montana: The Grizzlies guard can push the basketball with any guard in this field. He averages nearly three steals a game. If he flusters Taylor then the Grizzlies have a shot.

No. 5 Vanderbilt (24-10) vs. No. 12 Harvard (26-4), 4:40 p.m. ET

Since Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for Syracuse, it seems the trendy thing to do is pencil in Vanderbilt as the Elite Eight representative out of the top part of the East Region.

And why not? The Commodores just beat mighty Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game, right?

Whoa, whoa; let's slow down. This is Vanderbilt we're discussing here. This is the same program that has lost in the first round to double-digit seeds (Murray State, Siena and Richmond) in each of its last three tournament appearances.

This team may be suddenly surging after the performance in New Orleans, but the players haven't proved they can be trusted in the pressure-packed NCAA tournament -- no matter how much Melo's suspension might open things up.

"We deal in truth and reality, not perception and prediction,'' Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "What happens in the rest of the bracket doesn't impact us at all. Nothing does except how we play.''

But if the Commodores play the way they played in New Orleans last week, 12th-seeded Harvard will have a short stay in its first NCAA tournament in 66 years.

At the SEC tourney, Vandy's defense kept Georgia and Ole Miss under 60 points and held Kentucky to a mere 64. The significance of that win cannot be overstated.

"I would say you go from a team that knows it's capable of playing with anybody in the country to one knowing that they're capable of beating everybody in the country,'' Stallings said. "You have to beat the teams to prove it to yourself. We played them tough twice. But until you beat them, you're not 100 percent sure that you can. There is an extra bounce in their step and a sense of accomplishment and a sense of confidence. There's also a sense of excitement too.''

Vanderbilt is probably the worst possible matchup for Harvard. The Crimson get a team that's as hot as any in the country and one that plays a similar style to Harvard but has better, more productive players. Harvard probably would have been better served with a less disciplined opponent that can't make 3s.

"They are very athletic, more athletic than people give them credit for being in the SEC with incredible athletic teams that have been known throughout the years in that league,'' said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker.

Stallings was quick to compliment the Crimson on their fundamentals, the ability to shoot, ball-handle, pass and score inside as well as get to the foul line. He also doesn't hesitate to reference his school as "the Harvard of the South."

"I've used it a few times and I hope that the Harvard people don't take that as a slap in the face,'' Stallings said. "We obviously feel like we'd be comparing ourselves to greatness. We obviously really admire Harvard as an institution.''

The NCAA tournament selection committee says it doesn't consider opponents. But it's odd to see how much the two schools share a similar athletic vision. They are two of the most academic-rich schools in the field. And two of the hungriest.

"We basically ask the question 'Why not?' We just felt like our name and our school are as powerful as any,'' Amaker said. "There are other great ones obviously but we felt we were as powerful as any name in higher education and why not? Why can't we present this as an option for the correct kids that would want to see this as something to do something different, to make history?"

The Crimson have made their own history with a first bid in the modern era of the sport. A win would be a historic first.

Three players to watch

John Jenkins, 6-4, Jr., Vanderbilt: Jenkins was the SEC tournament MVP. He's one of the top shooters in the field. If he's on from the perimeter, the Commodores will be a tough out, and not just here but in Boston.

Jeffery Taylor,6-7, Sr., Vanderbilt: Taylor can score more as a slasher but his defense sets him apart. Taylor could be the key player in shutting down Harvard's wings.

Kyle Casey, Jr., F, Harvard: Casey is the one player on the Crimson who could pose some matchup issues for the Commodores. He has a knack for coming up big in key games and was instrumental in the Crimson's run to the Ivy League title thanks to his efficient offensive production.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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