Is there a more fitting nickname for a team than badgers is for Wisconsin basketball? And is there a tougher test for a team attempting to make a statement?
St. John's first opponent of the season, those Wisconsin Badgers, is just relentless, and not only on defense. No, it's on both ends of the court that Wisconsin makes teams work, fight, for every inch of the court. That's one thing you can always count on with Wisconsin, games are usually grueling tests for both players and fans.
Something Red Storm Coach Steve Lavin can't really prepare for in practice, despite having two weeks to prepare.
That's because it's nearly impossible to replicate the style the Badgers run at you. Consider, last season was Ryan's worst shooting club in his 12 years coaching in Madison. But despite that offensive ineptitude, Wisconsin still managed seven wins against teams that finished in the top-15 of the final Associated Press Poll. If it isn't one thing it's the other with Wisconsin. And even though it can be tough to watch, the Badgers simply badger teams into submission on a consistent basis.
Actually, last year's Badgers finished with an overall record of 23-12, the tenth time a Ryan coached Wisconsin team finished with at least twenty wins, prior to his arrival the program had managed that feat just four times in over a century of playing hoops. So whether it's killing the shot clock or simply turning up the pressure on defense, Wisconsin takes teams out of their game plans and finds ways to win.
Despite the usual routine of winning and the lofty ranking of twenty in the AP poll, St. John's may not exactly be lining up with the same old Wisconsin. Gone are three starters in Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren, and Ryan Evans. Tim Duncan none of them are, but all three had valuable roles for Ryan, be it on defense or snatching rebounds in the paint.
And that's exactly spot where St. John's should take aim at.
In the lane the Badgers now turn to inexperienced players like junior Frank Kaminsky, a seven-footer who averaged 4.2 points per game in just over 10 minutes of play last season, junior Duje Dukan and senior Zach Bohannon. JaKarr Sampson, the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year, and Chris Obekpa, the nation's leading shot-blocker in 2012-13, should be focal points on offense for Lavin. Pound the rock inside with experienced bigs who should be able to establish themselves in the post and at the rim.
Especially given that the Red Storm will be starting Rysheed Jordan in the backcourt. Jordan, the highly-touted frosh from Philadelphia, is going from high school to the frying pan, quick. Jordan almost assuredly hasn't seen the type of basketball the Badgers will throw at him. Which makes Obekpa and Sampson all the more important, safety valves for the young point guard.
Game one details-
- Where: Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- Time: 7:00 p.m.
Television: Big Ten Network
Yet throwing the experienced verses the inexperienced aside, this game could come down to the two team's star players. For the Badgers, the offense will run through Sam Dekker, the sophomore who averaged close to 10 points per game last season. This year Dekker moves into the starting lineup and is expected to shoulder much of the burden on offense. Stopping Dekker will be key for the Johnnies.
And just the same, Wisconsin will have to key in on St. John's scoring guard D'Angelo Harrison. Harrison led the Red Storm in scoring last season, 17 points per game, and in returning from suspension seems rejuvenated and focused. Harrison's play could very well be the difference in the outcome Friday and, looking long term, making or missing the NCAA tournament.
Wisconsin expects to get back to the Big Dance, something it does on a regular basis. But for St. John's, facing a rare year of relatively high expectations, March is never a guarantee. A win in Sioux Falls would go a long way toward making the Red Storm's case that they belong. Assuming, that is, the Red Storm can handle Bo's Badger Basketball.