Wisconsin toughs out run to Sweet 16

The gritty point guard maneuvered around three taller defenders for a putback and a three-point play. A backup forward drew a turning-point charging call that riled up the bench.

It’s the little things that helped carry Wisconsin into the program’s third trip to the Sweet 16 in four seasons. Baylor is next on Thursday in a West region game in Anaheim, Calif.

The No. 2 seed Badgers don’t typically boast the quickest or flashiest players, but they sure get the job done with a philosophy of playing smart, disciplined, and physically and mentally tough basketball.

“Especially here, at Wisconsin, they pride themselves on being tougher than the opponent — outworking them, out-toughing them on the court, which is why they’ve been able to have the success they’ve had,” forward Nigel Hayes said.

That blueprint was on display Saturday night before a pro-Wisconsin crowd that rocked the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Down 12 at the half to up-tempo, physical Oregon, the Badgers rallied for an 85-77 victory to clinch a spot in the NCAA regional semifinals.

Sure, 7-footer Frank Kaminsky had a team-high 19 points, and Ben Brust hit a highlight 3-pointer with 1:07 left that gave the Badgers (28-7) the lead for good.

But point man Traevon Jackson set the tone out of halftime by converting an air ball into a score and drawing a foul near a crowded bucket. Backup Duje Dukan drew the inspirational charge with about 9:30 left with the Badgers clinging to a four-point lead.

“How about a teammate saying probably the play of the game was Duje taking that charge?” coach Bo Ryan said in Milwaukee. “Without a doubt if you saw our bench, if you looked at our bench when that happened, you looked at our guys — that was the play of the game.”

So far this tournament, Wisconsin has routed methodical American 75-35 and its Princeton-style offense, and overcome Oregon’s transition game and in-your-face defense. It helps to have once-decorated recruits like sophomore Sam Dekker, a 2012 Parade All-American, and Hayes, a freshman and the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year.

But Ryan is particular when it comes to intangibles that he looks for in recruits, and how those traits might translate once they’re around the rest of the squad. No “me” players. Team first.

“Does somebody feel that they’re the main reason why the game’s being played?” Ryan said recently. “Do they have that kind of ego? Do they have that kind of work ethic you want to have? People that are going to be able to blend, mix, with the other guys … and can adapt to the collegiate setting at a rigorous institution.”

The wide-eyed Dekker can add energy. Kaminsky is a soft-shooting big man who can drive to the hoop. Combined with the athletic Hayes, they form probably the most offensively-skilled frontcourt that Wisconsin has had in a while. They’re a big reason why the Badgers are a more balanced and explosive team with the ball.

But they’ll never be mistaken for a transition team like Oregon. “Efficiency” remains the keyword in Ryan’s swing offense — it’s just that Wisconsin is better equipped now to take those shots earlier in the shot clock if needed, and can adapt to different styles.

The gritty heart of the team can be found in the three-man starting backcourt of Jackson, Brust and Josh Gasser, who usually draws the toughest defensive assignment.

“Bo has always grinded it out, pick the heck out of you,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said last week. “That’s just the way they play. It’s a physical game. He recruits to that.”

“Scrappy” has been another word used to describe Badgers players by opponents over the years.

“I think that’s actually a compliment because it shows how tough every possession is,” Jackson said. “As an offense, you think of playing against a team that’s scrappy, that’s not fun.”

Ryan said that only a few of the players he has brought in over his 13 years in Madison have shown potential to succeed in the program and then not made it. “If their agenda is something else than the team, then (they) can go somewhere else.”

And miss a trip to the Sweet 16.