INDIANAPOLIS — There’s an argument to be made that this Wisconsin team is the best offensive basketball in the history of college basketball, and believe me, I understand that statement will sound crazy considering that the Badgers have a reputation for being a low-scoring, “boring” basketball team.
But the stats back it up.
The Badgers have posted the highest adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the KenPom era, and it’s not close, either. When adjusted for strength of schedule, the Badgers average 1.285 points-per-possession. No team since 2002 — which is as far back as KenPom.com dates — had posted better than 1.241 PPP, a difference that doesn’t sound like much but, for those of you that aren’t statistically-inclined, is massive.
They posted 1.328 PPP in the win over Arizona, the nation’s No. 3 defense. They posted 1.224 PPP in Saturday night’s win over Kentucky, the nation’s No. 1 defense. And here’s the crazy part: the reason Wisconsin, with Saturday’s 71-64 win in hand, is heading to the national title game after ending Kentucky’s bid for a 40-0 season?
Their defense, the same defense that failed the Badgers in this game a season ago.
With 8:01 left in the game, Josh Gasser was called for a charge that looked like a terrible call. The whistle took away a three that Bronson Koenig hit, and Kentucky scored on the following two possessions, the latter of which came after giving up three straight offensive rebounds on the same possession. So instead of being up 59-56 after a run-killing three, the Badgers were down 60-56 while Kentucky was on a 16-4 surge to take control of the game.
It felt like it was over. It felt like Kentucky had done to Wisconsin the same thing that they have done to every other team that gave them a fight this season, absorbing body blow after body blow — the Wildcats were down by nine in the first half and eight in the second half — before their ability to overwhelm opponents with size and depth became too much. It felt like this was simply going to be another example of just how good this team is, winning despite spending much of the game being outplayed. The Wildcats were finally getting to the offensive glass. They were finally stringing together stops. They were finally able to slow down Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker.
“We were not sitting in an envious position, nice way of putting it,” head coach Bo Ryan said.
All of that changed over the course of five possessions that got Wisconsin to the title game.
And it was their defense that did it.
On four straight possessions during that stretch, Wisconsin forced the Wildcats to use the entire shot clock, forcing them to use 35 seconds and happily watching Aaron and Andrew Harrison try to make a play at the end of the clock. Three times, it resulted in a shot clock violation. Wisconsin scored seven straight points during that stretch, taking a 63-60 lead on a three from Sam Dekker with two minutes left, and on the ensuing possession, Dekker drew a charge on Trey Lyles.
“Those shot-clock violations were big for us,” Dekker said. “Gave us confidence on the defensive end and maybe hopefully drained a little bit of their confidence on the offensive end.”
The key, Dekker said, was their ability to prevent the ball from getting into Karl Anthony-Towns. Kentucky’s game-plan down the stretch was simple, the same as it was down the stretch against Notre Dame. They wanted to get the ball to their go-to guy. They wanted to let Towns go to work.
The end result was Bronson Koenig going toe-to-toe against the Harrisons, forcing those missed jumpers that they couldn’t get last season, when Aaron hit a three with 5.7 seconds left that sent the Wildcats into the title game.
“We knew last year they came down and hit a shot to beat us,” Kaminsky said. “This year we knew we had to get a stop at the end of the game if we wanted to win. We were able to force a bad shot and come out on top.”