MILWAUKEE (AP) – The most important player for the Wisconsin Badgers headed into their NCAA tournament opener might be a backup forward who rarely gets meaningful minutes.
But this week Zach Bohannon is the man who has experience with the offensive plan of the second-seeded Badgers’ first opponent – No. 15 seed American, with its Princeton-style offense.
Efficient Wisconsin against the methodical Eagles. Get ready for a test of basketball wills Thursday.
“As long as we don’t get beat backdoor, that’s the biggest thing. You can watch any Princeton team, the whole system is predicated on the backdoor cut and 3-point shots,” said Bohannon, a transfer who previously played that offense at Air Force.
The talent difference between American and the Badgers (26-7) might be as wide as Lake Michigan.
Start up front with jump-shooting big man Frank Kaminsky (13.6 points) and athletic forward Sam Dekker (12.7 points). Both present a challenge for American’s 6-foot-10 center Tony Wroblicky, the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year.
What is a little different this year is that all five Badgers on the floor can score, so add firepower and balance to that trademark Wisconsin efficiency.
“They’re scoring a ton of points this year, they’re getting out in transition,” American coach Mike Brennan said Wednesday. “It’s more than just the offense that everyone talks about, the swing offense.”
Maybe their offense will be the equalizer.
Brennan played for his mentor, Pete Carril at Princeton in the early 1990s and coached for seven years at Princeton. Brennan was also an assistant at Georgetown to another Carril protege, John Thompson III, before taking the American job last year.
It took a little adjustment, but the offense is clicking for the Eagles (20-12), who have defied expectations after Brennan took over a team that was 10-20 last season.
“It was able to give us new life from a team that struggled the year before and kind of give us a new look,” said leading scorer Jesse Reed (13.9 points). “Found a way to get all of our talents together and work together on the court well.”
Five things to know ahead of Thursday’s opening game in Milwaukee:
PICKING HIS BRAIN: Bohannon has played just 23 minutes this season but has served as an unofficial assistant coach given his experience playing in the Princeton offense. Bohannon went to work after the brackets were announced Sunday, giving the scout team pointers and helping assistant Greg Gard study up on American. Sticking to Wisconsin’s defensive principles is important, Bohannon said.
“You don’t have to know what’s coming, but long as you stick to the three or four principles you have, you’ll ultimately be successful.”
PREACHING PATIENCE: This may not be Ryan’s best defensive team, but then again Wisconsin has set high standards for themselves in that department. The Badgers pride themselves on being disciplined. “If there’s a team that would be able to stop this team, to know what it’s like to play against them, it would be us out of anybody,” Jackson said.
RISING EAGLES: American has played the underdog role from Day 1 of the season after being picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Patriot League in the preseason. They won the conference tournament title by upsetting Boston University on the road. Now the Eagles have to play Wisconsin in Milwaukee, barely a 90-minute drive east on Interstate 94 from the Badgers’ home in Madison. Get ready to see a lot of Wisconsin red in the stands.
FRIENDLY CROWD: The Badgers aren’t used to getting a warm reception at the Bradley Center. It’s where Marquette, the state’s other power conference program, plays its home games. On Wednesday, they were even assigned the locker room that Marquette usually uses.
“It’s cool. We walked in and one of the workers said ‘Make us proud, we’re pulling for you,'” Dekker said. “Usually, it’s ‘Go out there and get killed by 30.'”
UPEST EXPERIENCE: Brennan has direct knowledge of what it takes for a No. 15 seed to succeed in the NCAA tournament. This time, he’d like to come out the winner. Brennan was an assistant at Georgetown last year when the Hoyas were upset by 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. He won’t flip around that experience to use as inspiration for American, but the win does show his team that taking down Wisconsin isn’t impossible.
“I think anyone is beatable at this time,” guard Darius Gardner said.
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