West Region

Wisconsin v Arizona

It was Arizona’s defense that failed them in a loss to Wisconsin

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When you think of this Arizona team, the first thing that you think of is their defense.

They ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they have arguably the three-best individual defenders in the country in Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Nick Johnson. With the size and athleticism that’s present on that roster, it’s no wonder that the Wildcats were able to lock up defensively.

And it the end, it’s what cost them a trip to the Final Four.

“Frank Kaminsky is the reason they’re going to the Final Four,” Sean Miller said after the game, and he’s exactly right.

Arizona lost 64-63 to No. 2 seed Wisconsin in overtime, but you don’t have to be a basketball savant to know what the difference in the game was. Kaminsky had 28 points and 11 boards, seven of which came on the offensive end of the floor. He hit threes. He scored on post-ups. He played like a guy that knows that there are NBA scouts watching the nation’s best defensive team, and boy, did he make a statement.

And Arizona simply did not have an answer for him.

They tried everything. Kaleb Tarczewski couldn’t get out to Kaminsky’s threes quick enough without allowing the big fella to attack his close outs. Gordon tried to guard him, but Kaminsky’s power in the post was too much. They tried sitting Tarczewski and playing Gordon at the five, switching all screens and using Nick Johnson to front Kaminsky with help over the top.

Nothing worked.

Here’s the thing: it will be easy to simply say that Arizona’s issues on the offensive end of the floor are what did them in, but it doesn’t work like that. For starters, what stagnated their offense, more than anything, was the fact that they lost Brandon Ashley to a broken foot back in January. Since then, Arizona turned into a team that relied almost entirely on transition buckets and offensive rebounds for scoring, with the occasional big jumper from Nick Johnson thrown into the mix. They’re a team built around next-level athletes with a penchant for being in the right place at the right time and the aggressive to go get a rebound or a loose ball in a crowd.

That’s who they were, which is why it shouldn’t be all that surprising that T.J. McConnell, Johnson and Gordon combined to shoot 11-for-38 from the floor. This team was designed to withstand those nights.

Because, in theory, they were matchup proof defensively.

Their defense was supposed to be inexploitable.

That was before they ran into Frank the Tank.

Bo Ryan’s first trip to the Final Four will be the first without his father

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“This is for Butch.”

That’s what Bo Ryan told Craig Sager in his post game interview after his No. 2 seeded Wisconsin Badgers advanced to the first Final Four in Ryan’s 13-year tenure with the program with a thrilling, exhilarating 64-63 overtime win over top seed Arizona.

If you don’t know the story, it’s touching and heart-breaking all at the same time. Butch Ryan is Bo’s father. Butch and Bo were mainstays at the Final Four every year, with Butch decidedly the more popular of the two.

“More people knew my dad at Final Fours than me,” Ryan told ESPN.com after their win over Baylor on Thursday night. “It was our bonding time. Hell, I always had time there ’cause I’ve never been able to play in one of the dang things.”

Well, now he will be, but he’ll be doing it without his dad there to see him. Butch passed away in August. Saturday would have been his 90th birthday.

MOREArizona’s defense costs them a trip to the Final Four

“I’ll tell you, it’s going to be tough to be there coaching without him,” Ryan said, holding back tears, during his postgame interview. “I can’t imagine him or my mom being any happier. I’m happy that I’ve been able to be on the sideline and do this thing called coaching because my parents gave me the opportunity.”

For Wisconsin, this will be their first Final Four since 2000, when the program was still under the watchful eye of Dick Bennett. Ryan took over in 2001, and while he’s finished in the top four of the Big Ten regular season standings in every single season that he’s been in Madison, this was just his second trip to the Elite 8 and his first to college basketball’s final weekend as a coach, not a fan.

And here’s the kicker: Wisconsin is going to have a real chance to win this thing. Frank Kaminsky may be the single most difficult matchup left in the tournament, Sam Dekker is a future draft pick, Nigel Hayes will be a star next season and Wisconsin’s back court is as tough as any that you’ll find.

The Final Four is still a week away, however, so for now the Badgers are going to celebrate this win.

They’re going to celebrate with their coach.

“I’m honored to be a part of this,” Kaminsky said.

No. 1 Florida gets over the hump, but there’s a hunger for more

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Reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament is an achievement that’s to be commended. Given the nature of one-and-done tournaments, numerous teams with designs on winning a national title have fallen short of that accomplishment much less get to the Final Four. Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators had reached the Elite Eight four years in a row entering Saturday’s game against No. 11 Dayton, only to see their first three experiences end in heartbreak.

Faced with an opponent that while feisty, many expected them to beat, Florida had some external pressure to deal with. But that doesn’t compare to the internal hopes and expectations they placed on themselves, with a talented senior class looking to leave its mark by helping Donovan win his third national title.

And one of those seniors, point guard Scottie Wilbekin, has been the player asked to lead the way after what was a tumultuous offseason. Suspended from the program for the second time in his career, there were questions as to whether or not Wilbekin would be able to do enough off the court to ensure that his coach would entrust him with the task of leading the Gators on the court.

RELATED: No. 1 Florida defeats No. 11 Dayton 

Wilbekin was able to do that but to his credit he didn’t stop there, joining his teammates in leading the program to a 36-2 record and their first Final Four in seven years. The Gators were able to get over the hump due in part to the ability of its point guard to get over his own personal “hump” that placed his Florida career in jeopardy.

“Some of the issues that happened during the summer was part of what brought us together as a team,” Wilbekin said Friday. “Just throughout the year, the type of games that we’ve been in and the grind of practice, it’s just really a combination of all those things bringing us together to the team that we are today.

“It’s a joy now to play with these guys and just to spend time with them.”

From a statistical standpoint Wilbekin accounted for 23 points, three assists and three steals in Florida’s 62-52 win over Dayton, but he also played a critical role in the defending of Jordan Sibert. After scoring 18 points against No. 10 Stanford Sibert failed to score on Saturday, and Wilbekin’s effort certainly had something to do with that. He’s been one of the best point guards in the country all season long, and Wilbekin’s growth in all aspects of his game is one reason why Florida’s headed to Texas.

MORE: No. 11 Dayton in a good spot heading into next season

However he wasn’t alone, with fellow seniors Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young also having key roles. And from a growth standpoint, not many players in college basketball have come as far as Prather. After averaging 6.2 points per game as a junior Prather raised his production to 13.8 points per game this season, turning into the offensive threat few envisioned him becoming back in October.

Add in the burly Young and an energetic forward in Yeguete whose impact can’t be measured solely by the box score, and Florida had a capable cast of leaders who knew the pain that comes with falling short of their goal. And that was a motivation factor for the Gators, who are now headed to the Final Four.

Yet after getting over the hump there’s also the overwhelming feeling that this group is capable of more, as in winning two more games and delivering to their coach his third national title.

No. 1 Arizona survives No. 4 San Diego State, advances to the Elite 8

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It took 37 minutes and 14 seconds, but eventually No. 1 Arizona’s all-american shooting guard Nick Johnson scored.

It was a layup in transition, one that capped a 10-2 momentum-changing run to put the Wildcats up 56-51. After SDSU scored at the other end, Johnson buried his first three of the game and followed that up with eight straight free throws to help the Wildcats hold off the No. 4 seed Aztecs, 70-64, and advance to the Elite 8. He finished with 15 points, all coming in the final 2:46.

He had 15 of Arizona’s last 16 points and hit ten critical free throws during that stretch. That’s what veterans do. That’s what all-americans do. And that’s why Johnson is Arizona’s closer.

The Wildcats will face No. 2 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Honda Center in Anaheim for the West Region title and the right to go to the Final Four.

And after this performance, the idea of Arizona being a national championship caliber team only gets reinforced.

That may sound weird after the performance we just witnessed, but hear me out.

San Diego State is a really good basketball team. On Thursday night, they played about as well as they can possibly play. They didn’t turn the ball over and allow Arizona to get out in transition. They pounded the Wildcats on the offensive glass, and even if it didn’t result in a ton of second chance points, it forced Sean Miller to send all five players to the defensive glass. That prevents leak outs. That prevents fast breaks.

And that, in turn, forced Arizona to play a possession by possession game, where their subpar half court offense had to try and score against SDSU’s set defense, which is as stout as any defense in the country.

That’s not all. In addition to the fact that Johnson missed his first ten shots from the floor, Kaleb Tarczewski, their starting center, picked up three fouls in the first half and drew his fourth with more than 18 minutes left in the game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who finished with 15 points off the bench, fouled out with just under five minutes left. Arizona is not a deep team at all, particularly in their front court.

Throw in the fact that Xavier Thames had it going in the second half, and this was a worst-case scenario for Sean Miller. This was the blueprint for what you needs to happen to beat Arizona.

And they survived.

If Arizona proved anything tonight, it’s that their defense is good enough to overcome their worst performance.

That’s a scary thought for Wisconsin.

No. 6 Baylor’s roller coaster season comes to an end in the Sweet 16

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This is what we call regressing to the mean.

On Sunday, four days ago, No. 6 Baylor absolutely eviscerated No. 3 Creighton. They shot 63.8% from the floor. They hit 11 of their 18 threes. They scored 85 points. All that is before you consider that they completely shut down what had been the nation’s most dominant offensive attack.

On Thursday, in their loss to No. 2 Wisconsin, the Bears did none of that, losing 69-52 in a game that was never really competitive. Their shooting number? 31.0% from the field and just 2-for-15 from three.

It was good while it lasted, I guess.

The issue wasn’t just on the offensive end of the floor, however.

The biggest reason that Baylor was able to beat the breaks off of the Bluejays was that their zone rendered Creighton’s offense ineffective. They spread out on the shooters and dared the Jays to try to beat them in the paint. Creighton didn’t have an answer, but Wisconsin did, in the form of Frank Kaminsky. He finished with 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, eventually forcing the Bears out of their zone and into a man-to-man.

It’s hard to judge Baylor off of these two games, and it’s not fair to judge Scott Drew on them, either.

Drew devised a heckuva game plan on Sunday, one that sprung them past the consensus National Player of the Year and into the second weekend of the tournament and was aided by the fact that Baylor absolutely shot the lights out. On Thursday, they couldn’t buy a bucket. It’s basketball. These things happen.

So instead of pinning a loss in the Sweet 16 on Drew, how about we credit him for turning the Baylor season around. Remember, this team was dead in the water two months ago. They lost eight of their first ten games in Big 12 play and entered February on the wrong side of the bubble. Yet here they are in late March, one of the last 16 teams left in the Big Dance as a No. 6 seed.

All things considered, the Bears had a really good year.

And so did Scott Drew.

He’s not the second coming of John Wooden, but he did a pretty good job with this group. Hopefully people will recognize that.

No. 2 Wisconsin dominates No. 6 Baylor, gets within a win of Bo Ryan’s first Final Four

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Bo Ryan is the most consistent coach in the country this side of Bill Self.

He’s been at Wisconsin for 13 seasons. In each of those 13 seasons, the Badgers have finished, at worst, tied for fourth in the Big Ten standings. It’s a well-known fact for all sports fans, not just on college basketball message boards, that Wisconsin’s basketball team is always good. It doesn’t matter who they have and it doesn’t matter who they lose, they just win games.

But it may surprise you that the Badgers, who are a No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament, advanced to just their second Elite 8 under Ryan with Thursday night’s 69-52 win over No. 6 Baylor.

For comparison’s sake, Scott Drew, who is (somewhat unfairly) the butt of a running joke when it comes to coaching competence, would have gone to his third Elite 8 in the last five years had his Bears won.

It’s fairly incredible when you think about it. Ryan is widely considered one of the best — top 10-15 — coaches in the game, yet he’ll be playing for the chance to make his first Division I Final Four on Saturday evening when the Badgers take on the winner of tonight’s other West Regional semifinal between No. 1 Arizona and No. 4 San Diego State.

That’s not meant as a shot at Ryan, either, because his ability to identify prospects for and develop players in his system in unrivaled.

Frank Kaminsky is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Kaminsky was an unknown for the first two seasons that he saw time with the Badgers, biding his time on the bench while working on his game in practice. This season, however, he’s become of the most versatile front court players in the country and the centerpiece of a Wisconsin attack that eviscerated a Baylor defense that completely shut down Doug McDermott and the Creighton Bluejays just four days ago.

He finished with 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, forcing Baylor’s defense to collapse and opening up the perimeter for the never-ending string of shooters that Ryan has at his disposal. Wisconsin was just 6-for-16 from beyond the arc, but they did the majority of their damage from the perimeter while they built a first half lead that grew to double figures just 10 minutes into the game.

He also anchored a defense that stifled one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. He blocked six shots, a fairly impressive feat when you consider that Baylor’s front line has NBA-caliber size and athleticism. The Bears shot just 31.0% from the floor and 2-for-15 from three.

And if Wisconsin can put together one more performance like this, they’ll carry Ryan to his first Final Four in Madison.