Biggest Challenges Wisconsin Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup with American
On paper, it sure looks like the No. 2-seeded Wisconsin Badgers should have no trouble dispatching the No. 15-seeded American University Eagles in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
But if there's one thing we've learned from this season of college basketball, it's that we haven't learned anything.
The Badgers, despite one of the more challenging nonconference schedules in Division I basketball, went on to start the season 16-0. The Eagles would not have even qualified as one of the five toughest Wisconsin opponents before Big Ten play got underway, and with the Badgers getting slotted to play in Milwaukee, that would seem to only make the task easier.
Then again, it was just after the Badgers began conference play when the wheels started to come off. Wisconsin dropped games to Indiana on the road and Northwestern at home, two teams that combined to go 31-34 this season, as part of a six-game stretch that included five defeats.
Most would agree that the Badgers have moved on from that forgettable stretch of basketball, but they've shown a tendency to be vulnerable. What could the Eagles do to expose that vulnerability in the round of 64? Here are some of the biggest challenges American could present Wisconsin.
One of American's most notable traits is how deliberate it is on the offensive end. The Eagles only accumulate 62.4 possession per game, tied for the fourth-slowest pace in Division I college basketball according to TeamRankings.com.
That can work to a team's advantage when playing a high-caliber opponent, which is exactly what American will be doing in the round of 64 when it plays Wisconsin. Fewer possessions in a game means fewer opportunities to score, which can therefore keep games closer than they are supposed to be.
In the Eagles' lone game against an opponent in the RPI top 50 this season, they managed to stay within striking distance of Ohio State in Columbus up until the game's final minutes. American lost 63-52, but it wound up closer than many expected.
As long as a team can create a sense of optimism and keep it close with a heavy favorite, there's always a chance. The Badgers have shown a tendency to struggle down the stretch of games this season, so that could play right into American's hands.
Accounting for Multiple Scoring Threats
The Badgers know all about having a balanced scoring attack. While sophomore forward Sam Dekker was expected to carry a brunt of the load on offense, he isn't even the team's leading scorer, and four different starters are averaging over 10 points per game.
American can raise Wisconsin in that department, however, as it has four players averaging over 11 points per game.
The Eagles are led in scoring by sophomore guard Jesse Reed, who puts up 13.9 points per game. They also have an excellent low-post force in 6'10" center Tony Wroblicky and a three-point threat in junior guard John Schoof.
There are multiple players to account for around the arc for the Eagles. If someone like Reed is able to penetrate into the lane often—something the Badgers have been known to concede this season—that could open up drive-and-kick opportunities.
That's why it would likely be in Wisconsin's best interest to place its best defender, Josh Gasser, on Reed, but the Badgers lack in plus defenders beyond the fourth-year junior. This combination could create an interesting scenario in Milwaukee on Thursday.
Holding on to a Late Lead
Because of what might be the best offensive squad in school history, the Badgers haven't had much trouble building double-digit leads this season against a majority of its opponents.
The only problem is that this isn't your typical Bo Ryan team on defense, either.
Last season, Wisconsin went minutes on end without finding the basket, as it didn't have many players with the ability to create their own shot. That problem has surfaced on occasion for this year's bunch, and that's when the Badgers, combined with some subpar defense, can watch leads slip away in a hurry.
What may benefit Wisconsin is that American is almost exclusively a half-court offense, so the Eagles could have difficulty playing from behind and eliminating a late deficit. But should the Badgers find themselves with a small lead in the game's waning minutes, it can't be considered safe.
Dealing with Pace, Princeton Offense
We already mentioned the Eagles' pace in an earlier slide, but it's not just how slow American plays—it's also its offensive philosophy, namely the Princeton offense.
With the Princeton offense comes players always looking to break open, whether that means constantly moving off the ball, backdoor cuts, setting screens or remaining disciplined when passing the ball. That results in fewer turnovers; the Badgers only force five steals per game.
There is a lot to account for when teams are able to possess the ball for the better part of the shot clock, especially with constant motion taking place. Wisconsin's half-court defense hasn't been up to snuff this season, and it could grow frustrated with the pace of the game or even fatigued because of a short bench and the type of offense it will be dealt with facing.
American may only put up 63.9 points per game, which ranks it No. 316 in Division I hoops, but the Eagles only allow their opponents 58.6 points a contest, good for No. 7.
Sure, American's pace helps it in this aspect, but its opponents are shooting just 41.1 percent from the field, so no matter which way you slice it, points aren't easy to come by against the Eagles.
What will obviously help Wisconsin is that all five of its starters, as well as Bronson Koenig off the bench, can hit the three with relative consistency, and in general, the Badgers have one of the better offenses at the college level. But American will be one of the better defenses they've run up against all season.