Baylor and Wisconsin have never met in a men’s basketball game, and the unpredictable Bears have little in common with the disciplined Badgers at first glance.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and Baylor’s Scott Drew both recognized one big similarity as their teams prepared for their matchup just down the street from Disneyland.
Although they arrive from different directions, they both know what to do when they get to March.
Sixth-seeded Baylor (26-11) and second-seeded Wisconsin (28-7) went through workouts Wednesday at Honda Center before they play Thursday for a spot in the West Regional final.
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While the building is unfamiliar, the stakes are not: The Badgers are in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, while the Bears have made it three times in the last five. Those are remarkable runs of consistency for any program, let alone two teams without huge national profiles and the resulting recruiting advantages.
Past postseason success is fine, but the coaches know it could fade in the face of Baylor’s baffling 1-3-1 zone defense or Wisconsin’s famed intensity.
“I think every coach would tell you they would rather have that experience than not have it,” Drew said. “But it doesn’t guarantee you anything. That’s what makes March Madness. Even if you play well, it might be your last game because there are so many great teams and great players.”
The teams studied their unfamiliar opponents during the break and emerged with mutual respect. The Bears admire the tenacity displayed all winter by Wisconsin, which beat five of its seven Top 25 opponents while playing one of the NCAA’s toughest schedules.
They also believe the Badgers’ reputation as a walk-it-up team is woefully inaccurate.
“Just because of how they play in the half-court, using the whole clock, you would think that they wouldn’t score a lot of points in transition,” said Baylor guard Gary Franklin, an Inglewood native and California transfer. “But when you see them on film and see how fast they get out, you can tell they want to score right away.”
Wisconsin is similarly impressed by Baylor’s athleticism and offensive balance. While knocking off Nebraska and third-seeded Creighton last weekend, Baylor also deployed a matchup zone that flummoxed both opponents and limited Creighton star Doug McDermott.
With most of a week to prepare, it’s likely Ryan has cooked up a way to penetrate the scheme.
“You have to probe,” Ryan said. “But I’ve seen the way they’re playing it. Attacking it and getting people to move a certain direction, and using your angles and misdirection and different things that good zone offensive teams use, we’re going to have to put all those together.”
Few teams in recent seasons have been better in March than Baylor, which has won 17 of its 20 postseason games over the last six years.
The Bears haven’t been content with Sweet 16 success, either: They reached the regional final before losing to the eventual national champion in 2010 and 2012. They missed the NCAA Tournament last year, but went ahead and won the NIT anyway.
Although Drew sometimes struggles to get precision out of his gifted roster, he’s likely to have the players’ attention at this stage. Baylor has an added incentive for its weekend in Southern California — and it’s not just the Bears’ late-night trip to Hollywood’s famed Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles after they arrived Tuesday.
With two more wins, the Bears essentially would play the Final Four at home in Arlington, about 100 miles from their Waco campus. The idea seemed abstract last week, but it’s tantalizingly close now.
“Obviously that’s our goal, getting back to Arlington and playing in Texas again,” Bears forward Cory Jefferson said.
Wisconsin also is trying not to look beyond its Sweet 16 game, but the Badgers clearly would love to book Ryan’s trip to his first Final Four.
Ryan has piled up 702 career victories as a head coach at three Wisconsin schools, but his Badgers have reached just one regional final and no Final Fours during 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament trips — every season of his tenure in Madison.
“Coach Ryan is a teacher, and this is why he’s still rocking and rolling,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said. “He loves going to work and getting to teach us young kids his knowledge. … [But] the moment you start to look ahead is when you get yourself in trouble. So we focus on this Baylor team for the 40 minutes we’re guaranteed.”