Friday, March 21, 2014
Big Ten defenses will be put to the test
By Adam Rittenberg
MILWAUKEE -- Both Michigan and Wisconsin had their share of defensive doubters entering the NCAA tournament. The two Big Ten representatives silenced them, at least for a day, by effectively making one of the baskets disappear at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Wisconsin easily bottled up American's offense but will have more difficulty with up-tempo Oregon.
But the skeptics will stir again as Saturday's tipoffs approach. And they should. The Wolverines and Badgers still must validate themselves on the defensive end against No. 7 seeds -- Oregon and Texas -- that will stretch them to the max.
"Our defense," Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said, "is going to make us or break us."
Defense pushed Robinson and his teammates into the round of 32 after their normally fluid offense zigged and zagged against Wofford. The Wolverines made just one-third of their field goal attempts in the second half but allowed just 20 points, the same total they allowed in the first 20 minutes.
Wisconsin, a program famous for stifling defense -- but one that hasn't always delivered it this season -- was even better at keeping American off the scoreboard. The Badgers allowed only 13 points in the second half -- the fewest in a half for a Badgers opponent in any modern-era NCAA tournament game -- and just 18 points in the final 29 minutes, 17 seconds.
"Obviously, we were very good," Badgers assistant Greg Gard said, "but it will be a totally different challenge [Saturday]. It goes from a test of your discipline and your focus for 30 seconds, to the shot clock might not even get to 30 at times for Oregon."
Dana Altman might not be college basketball's Chip Kelly, but his team, unlike American, is all about pushing the tempo. Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense, reaching 90 points in nine games and 100 points in four. Offensive threats are everywhere, from the starters to the bench, which needs 18 more points to reach 1,000 for the season.
The Ducks showcased their scoring speed and prowess Thursday against BYU, tallying 87 points on 50 percent shooting. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan wondered aloud whether any tournament team will face a bigger contrast in opponents than his Badgers.
"It's crazy," said junior guard Josh Gasser, Wisconsin's top defender. "They are just completely opposite. Their philosophies, what they're trying to do, even their personnel. But we've played teams that like to slow it down, we've played teams that like to push it in transition.
"We're pretty much used to anything by now."
The Badgers have seen shades of Oregon in Big Ten foes like Iowa and Michigan State. Their defense hasn't been bad -- 63.7 points per game allowed, 42.9 percent opponent shooting percentage -- but it hasn't always met the Ryan standard, in part because of a stronger, quicker offense and a new-look front line.
Oregon is mostly perimeter-oriented but could target the post more with veteran Mike Moser and Elgin Cook, who had a career-high 23 points against BYU in his Milwaukee homecoming.
"We're attacking from every direction," Ducks point guard Johnathan Loyd said. "Anybody can go get 20 on any given night. It's just tough to defend. ... [Opponents] kind of start bickering with each other, like, 'Hey, you should have been there! Nah, I had this guy!'
"That's when you know our offense is really clicking."
Michigan faces much bigger post problems with Texas. Longhorns center Cameron Ridley and forward Jonathan Holmes combined for 483 rebounds during the regular season, including 187 offensive boards.
Cameron Ridley's size in the low post could cause problems for Michigan's defense.
Texas' final four baskets Thursday against Arizona State came on second chances, as Ridley and Holmes cleaned up down low.
"We're a good rebounding team," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They're a great rebounding team."
Texas isn't Wofford, which started no players taller than 6-foot-7 and went 1-for-19 from 3-point range.
"I don't think that's going to happen again," Michigan forward Jon Horford said, "so we have to be realistic about defensive expectations but still bring that emphasis into every game."
Longhorns players liken Michigan's perimeter-oriented style to Iowa State, a team it split with during the regular season.
"I look to attack more," Ridley said. "This is an opportunity for me and Jon, Prince [Ibeh] and Connor [Lammert] to show how good we are and exploit the advantage we might have."
Michigan is one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, but its defense has slipped at times, including late in the regular season. Beilein unveiled some 2-3 zone during the Big Ten tournament as a changeup from the team's standard man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone looks.
The Wolverines geared their defense against Wofford toward stopping guard Karl Cochran, the team's offensive catalyst. Texas, meanwhile, has four players who average in double figures and six who reached the mark against BYU.
"We have to vary our defensive coverages," Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said, "whether that be man-to-man or trapping or zones, and see if we can get them off rhythm."
Even if the Wolverines succeed at forcing missed shots, Texas could still make them pay.
"Any time you can get offensive rebounds, it breaks their back," Holmes said. "Another 35 seconds of defense is never fun."
Michigan and Wisconsin had plenty of fun on defense Thursday. Both teams must dig in to keep the good times going.