ITBUUS is back again, this time with Phil Mitten of the wonderful Wisconsin blog Bucky's 5th Quarter answering my pressing questions. Which players should PSU fans get to know? What is Bo Ryan's secret to success? What can PSU learn from another school that historically wasn't much of a hoops powerhouse and now is? These answers and more, if you'll read on...
1. Wisconsin got off to a blazing start, winning its first 16 games. They then hit a rough patch, losing five of their next six contests before ripping off their current six-game winning streak. What led to that rough patch to begin with? Is this team starting to find its identity at just the right time before the NCAA Tournament begins a few weeks from now?
Defense was never this particular team's strong suit. Once Indiana exploited Wisconsin's pick-and-roll defense in mid-January, it seemed to kick off a feeding frenzy. It took a while for the team to regroup and resolve those defensive issue, but I also think that after winning the first 16 games, the team's effort started to wane. Wisconsin's season started in August because of its Canadian exhibition tour, and that could have contributed to some exhaustion and illness mixed in there too. Now that they've made it over that hump, I think you hit the nail on the head: the Badgers have hit their stride again at just the right time. I don't think they've hit their ceiling yet (see how UW performed in the first half against IU last week). Wisconsin just has to hope the shots keep dropping when it matters most.
2. Everyone is familiar with superstar Sam Dekker, but who are some other names that Penn State fans should keep an eye out for on Sunday? What is Wisconsin's bread and butter and their achilles' heel?
As Wisconsin's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer (not to mention his massive 43-point game earlier this season), center Frank Kaminsky is hardly flying under the radar. But some opposing fans might wonder how Kaminsky is doing it, since he seemingly came out of nowhere. Once you see his footwork in the post you will understand. He is much more confident, patient and altogether better than he was as a little-used sophomore last year. Add in freshman Nigel Hayes and the Badgers have really turned a potential weakness (post play) into somewhat of a strength at this point. Hayes is a bull on the block who can draw free throws almost at will and has a reliable mid-range jumper. The progress Kaminsky and Hayes have made turns all the three-point shooters -- UW's calling card -- into even bigger weapons. Josh Gasser is hitting treys at 46 percent clip, while the other four starters are all better than 34 percent from distance.
As for remaining weaknesses, Wisconsin is still susceptible to an athletic big man who can be a factor on the glass. And I'm not convinced we've seen the last of a good pick-and-roll game causing problems if opposing guards can hit the 15-footers that the Badgers surrender.
3. Bo Ryan: How does he do it? It's not like he inherited a job at a college hoops powerhouse, nor does he or his staff recruit a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans. Plus, this is Madison, WI we're talking about. It's not like there's some basketball Mecca in Philly where the program can try and pluck city kids from. I guess what I'm trying to get at it is, how can PSU's own hoops squad become a consistent like Wisconsin's has become in the last couple of decades?
Though certainly not a national brand, Wisconsin and former AD Pat Richter made a real commitment to the program and its facilities years in advance of Ryan's arrival to prepare for this run its having now. That part should not be overlooked.
Lucking into a head coach like Bo Ryan is more than half the battle, of course. The guy can flat out coach and he loves to teach. Look at the player development in guys like Frank Kaminsky, Ryan Evans, Jordan Taylor, and Alando Tucker over the years. One common thread among those examples I just gave? None of the players were from Wisconsin. Illinois, Arizona, Minnesota. When it comes to the roster, Ryan and his staff have a keen eye for talent and they can be resourceful when going after it. They will pluck a 4- or 5-star talent only when they grow up in UW's back yard. Give credit to associate head coach Greg Gard, who has been Bo's right-hand man for years, handling scheduling, scouting and recruiting.
I'm not too familiar with PSU's recruiting, but I imagine one could sink a ton of effort into recruiting the wealth of talent in Philly, yet still not come away with much to show for it. Madison has a lot to sell as a college town, but it's definitely not the right fit for everybody. That is a dynamic that Bo Ryan understands thoroughly. He understands fit and looks for guys with characteristics that blend well with his coaching approach and playing style. Ryan rarely pulls recruits from Milwaukee, the most logical urban area to hit hard.
4. WORD ASSOCIATION (I list a word, you describe the first thing that comes to your mind, in just a few words)
Devin Harris - Speed demon. State hero. Stay healthy!!!
Michael Finley - Explosive. Reliable. Legend. Probably the reason I'm chatting with you today.
Dick Bennett - Defense. Perfectionist. Godfather of basketball in Wisconsin. Painfully slow. Golfer.
DUNNNNNN DUN DUN DUNNNNNN - Uh, are we talking Jerry Dunn now? A couple banner years for Penn State; the 2nd place finish in '96 seems forever ago. Or maybe this was just a Phantom of the Opera reference? [TIM'S NOTE: Sorry Phil, I was writing out the opening notes to "Jump Around"]
5. And finally, give us your piping-hot take on how Sunday's game will play out.
Penn State has typically played Wisconsin tough at home, and that should continue. Newbill in particular is a tough matchup. He's on a roll right now and can keep the Nitts in the game. Offensive rebounds will be the key. People I've talked to are very wary about a Badger letdown against PSU or Nebraska, but I think beating OSU reinforced that the Badgers cannot take Penn State lightly. And they won't. Might be a bit of a grinder, but I'll take Wisconsin, 69-64.
Thank you Phil, for providing us with some quality insight into tomorrow's matchup. I also hope the students get to storm the court again tomorrow. Be sure to check out Bucky's 5th Quarter for all Wisconsin sports coverage, and you can follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara