While the No. 2 seed Badgers (12-6 Big Ten, 28-7 overall) won’t be facing the opponent they might have expected in the Sweet 16, they will assuredly be preparing for a team unique both in its personnel and defense.
Wisconsin will head to Anaheim’s Honda Center to take on the West region’s No. 6 seed, Baylor Bears (9-9 Big 12, 26-11).
Much like Wisconsin, Baylor excelled in non-conference play, going 12-1 while reaching the Associated Press Top 10, then hit a wall in conference play, starting their Big 12 schedule 2-7. Since then the Bears have recovered and reached the Big 12 final, where they ended up losing to Iowa State.
In the NCAA tournament, the Bears first knocked off No. 11 seed Nebraska 76-40 and upset No. 3 seed Creighton 85-55 in a match that could be politely described as a slaughter.
Player-wise for Baylor, the story starts with one of the most unique players in the country, sophomore center and possible alien Isaiah Austin.
The California-born, Texas-raised former five-star recruit made headlines earlier in the season when he publicly revealed through an ESPN feature that he had lost all vision in his right eye due to an injury sustained in middle school. However, that lack of depth perception hasn’t stopped him from becoming a fearsome shot blocker, averaging 3.2 blocks per game.
“Yeah, Isaiah Austin has been blocking shots his whole life,” sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “He’s always been the tallest kid on the court with the longest arms. So he’s a good shot blocker. He’s going to go after it.”
At 7 foot 1 inches tall and 225 pounds, Austin measures one inch taller and ten pounds lighter than Wisconsin’s own lanky center, junior Frank Kaminsky. This matchup will be key for the Badgers, as Austin’s length and agility could create problems for the offensively versatile Kaminsky.
“Frank is one of the best pump faking, footwork, finesse players I think I’ve ever played with,” Dekker said. “When you can use those moves in there and just kind of confuse some guys with some moves that are pretty unorthodox, I think Frank can use that to his advantage.“
After Austin, the Bears’ frontcourt is highlighted by senior forward Cory Jefferson, the teams leading scorer at 13.2 points per game and rebounder at 8.2 rebounds per game. The backcourt starts efficient junior point guard Kenny Chery (2.31 assist-to-turnover ratio) and sharp shooting senior guard Brady Heslip (.468 3-point-percentage on 250 attempts).
Chery and Heslip combined to make 9-of-12 3-pointers in Baylor’s obliteration of Creighton in the Round of 32. As a team, the Bears shot 61.1 percent from deep and 63.8 percent overall.
“[I had] the family over yesterday and watched what they did to Creighton, unfortunately, I walked past my wife as she was talking to her sister, and I heard her say she was packing lightly. That was one bad sign,” said head coach Bo Ryan. “You don’t beat Creighton by 30, but it happened. You know that’s a pretty formidable foe.”
On defense, Baylor head coach Scott Drew is known for his at-times smothering matchup zone, which gave the three-point heavy Creighton nightmares all game. The country’s No. 2 offense according to the Ken Pomeroy ratings, only shot 5-of-24 from deep.
As another team with a top-five Ken-Pom offense that likes to shoot the three, it will be imperative for the Badgers to adjust where Creighton failed miserably.
“It’s basically a 1?3?1, but then they have their reads off of it and their kicks. One guy bumps another guy, depending on if you’re overloading or using short corners more than maybe high?lows,” Ryan said. “There weren’t too many weak spots last night, that’s for sure. And who knows? They might play us man?to?man for 40 minutes.”