1. Who would you say the most valuable players offensively and defensively are for the Badgers?
That's a harder question than you would think because this year's Wisconsin team takes such a balanced approach on both ends. On defense, though, center Jared Berggren is the anchor. He's the school's record-holder in blocked shots and has good feet for a big man. Offensively, four guys average around 10 ppg, but I'd have to settle on remarkably efficient freshman Sam Dekker as the MVP. Coming off the bench for only 22 minutes per game, Dekker still pours in 9.4 ppg as the team's top deep threat (40.7%) and is the most versatile of the bunch at 6'7". He's still turnover-prone but is improving every day.
2. How would you best describe Bo Ryan's gameplan? There is a lot of talk about Wisconsin being a team that likes to slow the pace of the game; how accurate is that characterization?
Wisconsin does want to slow the game down -- but mostly on one end: defense. It takes teams a long time to get good shots against the Badgers. And if a team isn't patient and jacks up quick shots, that's even better. Bo Ryan's strategy is consistent in a few areas, one of them being rebounding. Wisconsin crashes the defensive boards as well as any team in the country. Yet UW is concerned more about getting back on defense in transition than getting offensive rebounds, which is what really slows down faster teams.
Ryan also stresses limiting turnovers, which keeps the tempo lower as well. The Badgers are willing to take the first great shot they see, but will wait as long as they need to usually.
3. Wisconsin has a lot of quality wins, and made the B1G tournament championship game. Is a 5-seed about what you expected? Is it too high? Too low?
A five is about right. I thought they might sneak into a 4-seed with that run and the strength of the conference, but considering how far Wisconsin has come and the handful of ugly bumps in the road, I'm perfectly fine with it.
4. What is it about the B1G that makes it such a powerful basketball conference?
Recently the conference has gotten an influx of big-time talent from the midwest, which caught them up with the other power conferences. Guys like Dekker, Gary Harris, Glenn Robinson III, Cody Zeller, Trey Burke, and Jared Sullinger turned into (or will be) excellent college players. I think that's where it all starts, but there are other reasons too.
The coaching fraternity has really gotten better, with guys like Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and Thad Matta anchoring the league, keeping Matt Painter, and adding the likes of John Beilein, Tubby Smith and Fran McCaffery. I mean Tubby, a national title winner, is one of the Big Ten's most embarrassing coaches these days. That's depth. Plus, over a period of time, the Big Ten universities and fanbases, like those in the ACC and Big East, just care more about hoops on average than they do elsewhere in the country. Attendance is always tops in the nation and I think that level of support leads to success. Well, unless you are Northwestern.
5. If there is one player that this team cannot win without, who is it?
Six months ago I would have said Josh Gasser or Jared Berggren, but then the Badgers won without Gasser (ACL/LCL tear). Berggren would be the easy choice since he's really good and his backup Frank Kaminsky is not quite ready for prime time, but if pressed, I'd take point guard Traevon Jackson as a surprise answer. After graduating Jordan Taylor and losing Gasser, the lead guard situation was a mess. Jackson still is a mess sometimes, but he's come a long way and hit some huuuuge shots to win games. He's got a moxie about him. Going back to George Marshall at this point is something I just don't want to see anymore, which I never thought I'd say.
6. Which player comes close to being the Marshall Henderson of the group?
Finally, an easy one. Ben Brust is Wisconsin's long-range bomber. You might remember him from such films as "Suck it, Michigan." He must be checked anywhere within 30-feet is he's feeling it. He sure doesn't attempt as many 3-pointers (194) as Henderson (367), but who does? Brust still has the same affinity for chucking and is shooting a higher percentage (39.7%) from distance this year than Hondo (35.7%).
7. How to Wisconsin fans feel in general about this opening matchup? Love it? Hate it?
I think a lot of people recognize the glint in Ole Miss' eyes and fear the wild card element, especially with Henderson involved and it being a 5/12 matchup. That alone gets a thumbs up, just because the Badgers don't have to beat up on South Dakota State when they can shut up someone that is actually talking smack. However, Badger Nation is pretty comfortable, given the wildly different SOS each team made it through to get here.
8. My readers want me to ask you something about cheese. So which cheese is best?
I like cheese on pizza and tacos, so I'm not the best guy to ask. But I'd start with something from Hook's ... the 12-year cheddar was good enough for Rob Dyrdek's "most expensive grilled cheese" ever.
9. And finally, a score prediction, if you'd like.
Wisconsin 66, Ole Miss 60