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Jake Byrne was among the more unsung components of the Wisconsin offense; a blocking tight end who rarely if ever drew attention to himself unless he missed a block that blew up a running play. Outside of the team meeting room, who would know? Such was his anonymity.
Byrne had one reception last season and six overall during his 51-game UW career. Yet he was a key contributor to the success that the Badgers have had moving the chains. Nobody realizes that more than Sam Arneson, who's competing for Byrne's job on the line of scrimmage.
"I learned a lot from watching him (Byrne),'' said Arneson, a freshman from Merrill, Wis. "I think people underestimated how good of a blocker he was. He got the job done; time-in and time out.
"That's who we're trying to replace -- being that consistent blocker on the edge. That's what you need to get the offense to go and the tight end is such a pivotal blocker.
"You don't realize that until you have a guy who can't make that block.''
Arneson has gotten a chance to prove himself with the No. 1 offense during spring drills due in part to an injury to tight end Brian Wozniak. The Badgers are looking for a complement to H-back Jacob Pedersen who's coming off an injury and began practicing for the first time this week.
While there's little experience behind Pedersen and Wozniak, both of whom are juniors, there's plenty of promise in the mix that includes Arneson and Brock DeCicco, a junior transfer from Pitt, and Austin Maly and Austin Traylor, redshirt freshmen from Waunakee, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio, respectively.
Even though Arneson is completing only his second semester on campus, he conceded shyly, "You feel a little older. You feel like the guys around you don't view you as that real young guy anymore. You feel like you can say something to a teammate and he'll take it with some respect.''
Arneson has begun to mature physically. Last fall, he reported to training camp at about 245 pounds. He got up to 260 this winter. "I focused on eating a little healthier to maybe shed a little fat and build some muscle,'' he said, crediting UW assistant strength coach Brian Bott for adding "good weight.''
Good how? Well, good from the respect where he said, "I think I'm faster than I was.''
Good also from another very important respect to his position.
"We have to be able to move people,'' said Arneson, speaking for the tight ends who are considered an extension of the offensive line. "It's definitely helping my blocking. I'm moving people better than I was in the fall, not only with my strength but with my (additional) weight.''
In high school, he acknowledged, "Run blocking was easy; it's something you could do.''
But he learned, "You get here as a freshman and they're all pretty much stronger than you.''
Arneson understood what had to happen next.
"You get in the weight room,'' he said, "and you put in the work over the winter.''
Arneson has been auditioning this spring under the watchful eye of a new tight ends coach, Eddie Faulkner, who has replaced Joe Rudolph. Comparing one to the other, he said, "Great coaches, but different coaches with different personalities.''
Asked specifically about Faulkner -- a former Badger running back -- Arneson, whose dad is a former UW tight end, said, "He (Faulkner) is someone you respect right away. He knows his stuff.''
The offense has been tweaked to a degree by coordinator Matt Canada. Along with the coaching turnover, Arneson pointed out, the personnel has also turned over. "We have some different play calls,'' he said, "and different players executing them. It's a lot of the same stuff with different terminology.''
There was the sense that some steps have been taken "and we'll continue to progress as we get more comfortable'' with the offense, he said; particularly given his own youth and inexperience. Arneson is striving "for consistency on every play and being the guy they can really count on.''
If he can get to that point, he would like to consider "maybe taking another step as a leader.''
Byrne took that route in his own quiet way and proved it's not a bad path to follow.
One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two ...
"Two seconds,'' Barry Davis said, "cost me the gold medal.''
Davis was guilty of one mistake - a two-second lapse - that put him in a hole and it turned out to be the difference in his 1984 Olympic freestyle wrestling match
against Japan's Hideaki Tomiyama.
At the end of the first period, Tomiyama took advantage of Davis on the mat and scored two points to take a 3-1 lead. "Now I had to chase him,'' Davis said. "You have to take more risks.''
Tomiyama, by contrast, could pick his spots, which he did in holding off Davis and winning, 8-3. Tomiyama left Los Angeles with the gold in the 125.5 pounds weight class. Davis took home the silver.
"I actually lost more my Olympic year than I probably did my whole college career,'' said Davis who had a record of 162-9-1 (.945) during his illustrious career at the University of Iowa.
That includes three NCAA championships, the last of which Davis collected upon his return to the Hawkeyes following his "redshirt year'' with the U.S. Olympic team.
"I was a much better wrestler my senior year,'' Davis said.
There was a different qualifying standard for the Olympic redshirt when Davis was a collegian.
"You had to be at the national tournament or you couldn't compete; that was a good criteria,'' said Davis, who just completed his 18th season as Wisconsin's head coach.
"I wouldn't say it was tougher back then, but it should be tough to qualify. You just don't want to let anybody in the tournament. You can't water down the (Olympic) games.''
Davis is okay with the current redshirt criteria that include student-athletes who earn a top three finish at the NCAAs and a top two finish at the university national championships; or a top eight finish at the Senior World trials.
Past NCAA champions and Senior World and Olympic team members also qualify for the redshirt.
Davis said the Olympic redshirt can be an invaluable stepping stone in preparing for the competition at the trials from the standpoint of gaining experience in a particular discipline.
"Whenever you travel overseas and wrestle in another country,'' he said, "you become better and more worldly because you've got to make changes because you're not in the U.S. environment.
"It makes you more mature all the way around.''
The Badgers will be well-represented at this weekend's Olympic Trials in Iowa City.
Joining the Olympic redshirts - Andrew Howe, Tyler Graff and Travis Rutt - will be Jesse Thielke, a future UW wrestler, who spent the year at the national training center.
Two of Davis' assistants - Ryan Morningstar and Trevor Brandvold - will also be competing. Davis will be rooting them all on knowing how difficult it gets when you reach this point in the process.
"At this level, it's the guy who can make the fewest mistakes,'' Davis said. "It happens so much quicker - the speed and the explosion. The technical skills are so tight; I'm talking so tight.
"One mistake could cost you a spot on the team.''
Or a gold medal.
One of the most meaningful endorsements that a tailback can get is from a linebacker who's entrusted with bringing him down on a regular basis. There's no better measuring stick than the collisions that routinely occur in these situations between the ball-carrier and the tackler.
So listen to what linebacker Chris Borland has to say about tailback Melvin Gordon:
"He's always been an athletic freak since the first day he stepped on campus,'' Borland said of the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Gordon, a redshirt freshman out of Kenosha Bradford High School. "He's a big guy with raw speed. He's got a burst and there are very few guys who can catch him in the secondary.''
Last fall, Gordon saw action in three of the first four games, including eight rushes for 32 yards and his first career touchdown Sept. 24 against South Dakota at Camp Randall Stadium. Overall, he had 28 carries for 98 yards before being sidelined for the rest of the season with a groin injury.
Gordon was able to qualify for a medical redshirt -- thereby preserving four years of eligibility -- because he appeared in less than one-third (4) of the UW's regular season games. During Rose Bowl practices, Gordon returned and got reps simulating Oregon's LaMichael James for the Badgers' No. 1 defense.
This spring, Gordon has reclaimed his own identity all the way to his jersey number: No. 25, which he wore at Bradford when he rushed for over 2,000 yards and 38 touchdowns as a senior. In the 2011 training camp, there was the expectation that Gordon would help the Badgers on special teams.
Gordon switched to No. 3 to avoid a potential duplicate number situation with Adam Hampton, a senior defensive back, who was one of the UW leaders on special teams. Hampton was also No. 25.
"Coach B (Bret Bielema) said that he would give me my number back, so No. 3 was temporary,'' Gordon said.
Yes, and no. Last Saturday, Gordon was once again No. 3 -- on the depth chart at tailback -- behind Heisman finalist Montee Ball and James White, a 1,000-yard rusher as a true freshman in 2010. Competing with Gordon for that No. 3 slot is Jeff Lewis, who sat out the scrimmage because of an injury.
White and Gordon each had some explosive downfield runs.
"I'm just out here every day trying to grind and catch up from last year,'' said Gordon, who conceded that he has been able to close some of that ground that he lost to the others "with a new playbook'' under offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "It kind of evened it out for me,'' he said.
Asked for specifics on how the mix of four new assistants on offense may have impacted the play-calling, Gordon said, "It's a little simpler. The terminology has changed a little bit but when it comes down do it, we're still doing the same things, we're still playing Wisconsin football.''
In retrospect, Gordon feels like he got the most out of his disjointed freshman season. "Even though I wasn't participating, I was mentally preparing myself by knowing the plays,'' he said. "I definitely felt like I got mentally stronger. Being a young player, it comes with maturity.''
Borland saw the same things happening with Gordon.
"Early on, he epitomized the young guy,'' Borland recalled. "He came in and didn't quite know how to work. But he has picked up great tips from Montee and James and I definitely think he's going to play and contribute this year.''
Ball, in particular, has been a guiding light for the more inexperienced players on the roster. "Montee is a natural leader just by the way he goes about his business,'' said Borland. "Over the last season and into the spring, Montee has kind of a developed a voice, too, for the offense.''
Gordon paid Ball the ultimate compliment. "I try to compete against Montee,'' he said, singling out Ball's leadership and "how he carries himself in the workouts'' and on the practice field. "I'm just trying to learn how he works so when he leaves I'll know what to do and how to get there.''
Another Bradford product, freshman Vonte Jackson, has joined the "family'' of UW tailbacks. "That's how it is -- it's a brotherhood,'' Gordon said of the position group. "We're real close, we're together all the time outside of here (the stadium). If one needs help the other is there to provide that help.''
Based on the early results, Gordon is a strong candidate to help the Badgers wherever and whenever needed. Besides honing his receiving skills this spring -- what he calls "working on my craft'' -- there is Gordon' recognition that "Montee and James are the top guys'' in the backfield.
So does he feel like that he has something to prove?
"Yes sir,'' Gordon said. "It's important to get my name out there.''
So far, so good
"He's the real deal,'' Borland said.
Would a proven offensive guard like Kevin Zeitler, a first-team All-Big Ten selection at that position for Wisconsin, have any reservations about playing center, if that's what was asked of him by a pro team? "I wouldn't hesitate,'' he said. "I'd run on the field to play.''
He'd run through a wall first, if that's what it took to play in the NFL.
"Without a doubt,'' he said.
Fact is, Zeitler has fielded questions about his willingness to play center. "It seems like everyone asks, it only makes sense,'' he said. "In the NFL, the backup interior lineman, no matter who it is, has to play all the positions. You have to be ready for anything.''
Zeitler has spent a lot of time getting ready for this moment, the NFL draft.
"You can't be just some guy who wants to get drafted because you did well in college,'' he elaborated. "You have to show them that you're here for their team now and nothing you've done before matters. It's what you do from now on.''
Prior to the start of his freshman year, there was some speculation that Zeitler could wind up at center. So he worked out diligently at that spot on his own. "That's the story that Coach B (Bret Bielema) always tells about me snapping three hours a day,'' he said, smirking.
True or false? "It was clearly true, I was right there snapping against the wall,'' he said, pointing to a corner of the McClain Center, "while Coach was filming a car commercial over there (in an opposite corner). That's what I did all summer. But I got the right guard spot.''
And that's where he started 36 games for the Badgers.
"He stuck with me,'' Zeitler said of Bielema.
Here's a twist of irony: Zeitler worked out Wednesday in front of over a dozen NFL teams, including the Baltimore Ravens and their offensive line coach, Andy Moeller, who had recruited Zeitler while he was an assistant at the University of Michigan.
"He offered me (a scholarship),'' Zeitler said of Moeller, a former linebacker for the Wolverines and the son of ex-Michigan head coach Gary Moeller. "But he called back and said they couldn't take me because they had committed to too many interior linemen.
"I committed here two hours later. It kind of worked out,'' he said, smirking again.
Are there any questions that Zeitler still needs to answer in advance of the draft? "Right now, I guess, can I be a first rounder?'' he posed. "The key is that I want to show them that I'm athletic and try to prove to them that I'm worth a high pick.''
Regarding mock drafts, Zeitler has attempted to keep everything in perspective.
"It's the people who don't ever talk to you who draft you,'' he rationalized of the process. "It's going to be a nice surprise whenever I do get taken. I'll be happy no matter where it is.''
Would a proven offensive center like Peter Konz, a Pro Football Weekly
All-American at that position for the Badgers, have any reservations about playing guard, if that's what was asked of him by pro teams?
Well, first of all, nobody has formally asked yet.
"But what they've had me do,'' Konz said, "is some teams have had me snap, some teams have had me in a right-handed or a left-handed stance to get a feel for it (guard). In the NFL, they have seven spots; five for starters, one for an inside player, one for a tackle.''
In other words, Konz's words, it doesn't hurt to be flexible. If you can play center and guard or guard and center it will enhance your marketability. Wednesday's workout was really all about Konz, though Zeitler and UW offensive tackle Josh Oglesby took part in the drills, as well.
After managing only 18 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press at the NFL scouting combine, Konz needed to put up a bigger number -- which he did, 23 reps. Konz gave all the credit for his improvement to UW strength coach Brian Bott, who works with the O-line.
"Getting above 20 reps is important for everybody to make sure there are no red flags, as they say,'' Konz said. "Here at Wisconsin, we don't rep in the 2os at 225 pounds. We're not looking for 225, we're looking for 375, one to eight reps. It's a lot different.
"This will be the only time in my life I do this (reps at 225).
"But you do what your bosses tell you to do.''
Konz felt good about the agility tests and bag drills. More than anything, he wanted to do a little cutting and running (sans 40-yard sprints) so that interested teams could see that he's at least 90 percent recovered from his late-season ankle dislocation.
All he really wanted to do, he said, was show that he can "play football.''
Konz is a potential first-round pick based on what he has shown on tape alone.
"You try to get a feel,'' he said of his draft status and where he might wind up. "My family always asks, and I want to know, too. At the end of the day, it depends on who gets drafted and what trades are made and what a team needs (at a position).
"You may be the best player on the board -- according to some people -- but if the team doesn't need you, they're not going to pick you.''
The last few months, Konz has been adjusting to a different lifestyle.
"One of the strangest things is when you kind of lose that structure of school,'' he said. "For the most part, you don't push yourself as hard because you don't feel the pressure to do so. Kevin and Brian Bott worked me out every day. They were the fire (under him).
"Like Coach Bielema always says, 'When you feel like you're focused in school, you feel more of a drive to feel focused on the field, too.' I'm finishing up an 18-page paper on renewable energy and whether it's feasible. I'm going to get it done before the draft.''
Oglesby had his own motivation for working out Wednesday. "In my position,'' he said, "the more eyes, the better. I'm just trying to put my best foot forward for everyone. A lot of people say they have clues (on the draft) and things like that. I have no idea.''
The reality is that Oglesby has had so many knee surgeries over his high school and college football career that "I bring along baggage.'' That didn't prevent the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys from conducting individual workouts with Oglesby.
"A few teams in Indy said it was up to their medical staff on whether or not I'm slotted in the draft,'' he said of his time at the combine. "Hopefully someone can put aside the knee problems and just grade the player. It all depends on who's willing to take a chance.
"I just want the opportunity to show that I'm still a decent football player.''
Sounded like a modest request.
"You always say that you want to be out in the real world,'' Oglesby said. "And now the real world is here and it's kind of fun and scary at the same time.'' Especially knowing, he added, "The end of the month (the draft) is going to determine the rest of my life.''
This will serve as a final snapshot of Jordan Taylor in his Wisconsin game jersey: Taylor politely answering all questions at his locker following Thursday's loss to Syracuse in an NCAA East Regional semifinal; Taylor dutifully staying true to his core beliefs despite the pain.
On Taylor's left is fellow senior Rob Wilson, who's looking inconsolable; his body very nearly curled up in the fetal position. On Taylor's right is junior Mike Bruesewitz, who's looking drawn and tired; his legs stretched out, his head back, his eyes vacant.
Taylor is first asked about the gamesmanship with Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine, a fifth-year senior. Taylor and Jardine were roommates at the Deron Williams elite guard basketball camp in Chicago over the summer. They attended the Chris Paul camp, too.
At the 10-minute mark of the second half, Jardine buried a 3-point shot to push the Orange into a 51-47 lead. A smiling Taylor brought the ball up and immediately answered Jardine with a 3-point hit -- one of his five triples, matching a season-high.
Acknowledging Jardine, and the competitiveness that exists between them, he said, "It's a very serious game. At the same time you've got to have some fun.
"Above everything else, I've had a ton of fun during my four years here. I wouldn't trade it for anything.''
Taylor was later told that UW coach Bo Ryan had praised him for his work in grooming Wisconsin's front line of Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans. Their development has been instrumental to the growth of the Badgers throughout the season.
Given that Berggren and Evans, in particular, had seen so very little playing time last season -- Berggren averaged 6.9 minutes and Evans averaged 11.6 while serving as understudys to Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil -- how far had they come as a group?
"Really far,'' Taylor said. "It's kind of a tough question to answer, just because I feel like they had that in them -- they just had to come out and show it. I'm sure I had a small role in that. But I didn't put all the talent in Ryan and Jared and Mike.
"That's not me. That's them working on their games hard in the offseason. My job was to try and get them the ball and encourage them -- be a leader for them. I did a decent job with that but, obviously, came up a little bit short.
"I hope that I helped them a little bit this year and I hope that I helped them move forward for next year, because they're going to have a really good team.''
All things considered, if Taylor had been given the ball and one possession -- one shot to win or lose against Syracuse, one shot to either advance his team to the Elite Eight or go home if that shot missed -- would he have accepted that proposition beforehand?
"I was thinking about it before the game,'' Taylor said. "I just had a weird feeling that it was going to come down to one possession. I mean obviously that's easy to say now. I just had a weird feeling that it was going to come down to that.
"I feel like seven-out-of-10, eight-out-of-10 times, we're going to get a score there. It's just unfortunate we didn't. Like I said earlier, hats off to Syracuse. They did a very good job of defending on that last possession. It was great defense.
"They did just enough to win.''
Berggren was presented the scenario: one shot to win or lose. Take it or leave it?
"Yeah, absolutely, I'd take it,'' he said. "To be in that kind of game back and forth -- they made runs, we made runs -- it's a lot of fun. That's what this tournament is all about. It's about guys playing with everything on the line and giving it all they have.
"To be down one (point) with the ball in our hands for one last possession, I never had a doubt; I believed to the very last second that we were going to win that game. To see the ball not go in at the end is heartbreaking.
"Until the final horn sounded and the ball didn't go in, I was still believing and hoping and praying and wishing that we'd be playing Saturday. But that's not the case.''
UW assistant coach Gary Close, who had put together the scouting report on Syracuse, felt that Badgers would have a chance to win the game if they made at least 10 3-point shots, had 10 or fewer turnovers, and had 10 or more offensive rebounds.
That was his formula: 10 + 10 + 10 = victory.
They finished with 14 3-point shots, six turnovers and eight offensive rebounds. "Maybe a couple of offensive rebounds would have gotten us one more bucket,'' he said.
So close, yet so ... painful.
"It was a one-point game in the Sweet 16 and we were one point short -- it's pretty tough to swallow,'' Bruesewitz summarized. "We did some good stuff. We made shots, played well as a team. It just wasn't enough, at least this time. We came up a little short.''
Sizing up the UW locker room, Close observed, "There's a lot of potential in here and they (the returning players) will get better. That's what this program is all about.''
From 1-3 in the Big Ten to one shot from the Elite Eight.
That's what this season was all about.
Rob Wilson, Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky will be watching and studying. They will be taking mental notes on everything that takes place on the floor between Wisconsin and Syracuse in the early minutes of Thursday night's Sweet 16 game of the NCAA tournament.
They will each be paying attention to the individual matchups and all of the little details that impact runs and momentum despite not knowing for sure when they will get the call from Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan to enter the game against the Orange.
Staying ready is part of the challenge for any player who comes off the bench. Through the second and third round games - the wins over Montana and Vanderbilt - Wilson, Brust and Kaminsky are averaging 25.5, 16.5 and 4.5 minutes, respectively.
"You know that you could be called on at any time so you prepare your mind mentally that you're always ready," said Wilson, a senior, who stunned Indiana in the Big Ten tournament with 30 points in 32 minutes. He has two starts in 116 career games.
"You can learn a lot by not being out there right away," Wilson said, "because you're able to see what they're doing and you can almost figure out what their game plan is before you actually get into the game and go against it."
You can get a feel, Wilson noted, from watching how players move without the basketball on offense or handle screens on defense. Against Syracuse, which features a signature 2-3 zone, he will see if there are tendencies, especially jumping passing lanes.
"I want to know which guy is playing aggressively in their zone," said Wilson, adding that the most distinguishing characteristic of the Orange defense is the length of the players which they use to their advantage by getting deflections and creating turnovers.
"You always have to keep that in the back of your mind - that they are a lot longer than you might expect. So you have to make a lot of ball fakes and be strong with the ball. If you turn it over, there might be a dunk at the other end. They feed off that."
Understanding and accepting a bench role is key. "Our bench has been important all season and we have to keep bringing the energy," said Wilson who had 10 points against Montana but none against Vandy. "Scoring is not the only way you can contribute."
On defense, Wilson helped chase John Jenkins, who was held well under his season scoring average. He also had a couple of timely rebounds and assists without turning over the ball. That will be critical against Syracuse's ball-hawking defense.
"We haven't really faced a lot of zone this year," conceded Brust, who faced many box-and-one defenses in high school because he was such a big-time scorer. "We've played a lot of different defenses this year and we have to use that knowledge in this game."
As the opening minutes are unfolding, Brust said, "There's definitely a learning curve because you have the time to watch (from the bench) and see what's working, and what's not working and what mistakes are being made."
Brust had 11 points and four rebounds against Vanderbilt. That was the most he had scored since Jan. 26 when he had 13 against Indiana. But who's counting? "We have a balanced attack," he said. "Everybody can shoot, dribble, pass and defend."
Kaminsky, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out some things as a true freshman. Against Montana, he played only three minutes. "I was really nervous; it's my first tournament," he said, shrugging. "But I got rid of the nerves and now I'm ready to go."
While he's waiting for his turn, Kaminsky will try to get a feel for how Syracuse is handling Berggren and then put it to use when he's in the game. "If they're closing out too hard, then go to the rim," he said. "If they're playing off of him, then shoot it."
Getting up to game speed is more difficult. "You really have to be out there," Kaminsky said. "But you can pick up on the little things that can help you. Coach (Bo Ryan) is always telling us before the game to pay attention to what you can go in and do."
Syracuse's bench outscored Kansas State, 33-0. Dion Waiters, who's viewed in most circles as the top sixth man in college basketball, had a game-high 18 points while James Southerland chipped in with 15 points and six rebounds.
How will the Badgers counter-punch? Will it be Wilson? Brust? Will it be Wilson and Brust? Kaminsky has a reasonable expectation. "Even if I have to go in and give someone a break for a couple of minutes, that's fine," he said. "We have to do what we can do to win."
A nauseous Josh Gasser got his wake-up call at 12:30 a.m. Saturday. The UW sophomore guard was not green in honor of St. Patrick's Day, either. Mike Bruesewitz was watching a movie when he heard something that he didn't want to hear from Gasser, his road roommate.
"Josh went to the bathroom," Bruesewitz related, "and he says, 'Mike, call Henry.'"
Henry is Henry Perez-Guerra, the trainer for the UW men's basketball team.
"That's when I got quarantined out of my room," said Bruesewitz, who joined Badger teammates Dan Fahey and Jordan Smith in their hotel room. Gasser was isolated, and the virus was severe enough that he was unable to get back to sleep because of vomiting and diarrhea.
"To be honest, I probably only slept from noon to 2 (p.m.) until we left for the game," he said.
It was not just any game, mind-you, but a third round NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt, the No. 5 seed. In preparation for chasing and checking John Jenkins - a prolific 3-point sniper - Gasser had three Saltine crackers. "That was my pre-game meal," he said.
Throughout his ordeal, he was hooked up to IVs. He didn't suffer alone, though. Bo Ryan's wife, Kelly, was too sick to attend the game. So was redshirt freshman Jarrod Uthoff. The virus also weakened several members of the UW travel party, including some cheerleaders.
In the early morning hours, Bruesewitz admitted that "It was looking real suspect." That was his prognosis on whether Gasser would be ready for the 4:10 p.m. tipoff (MT) at The Pit. The prospect of trying to deal with Jenkins without Gasser would be the pits, he thought.
"But we have world class trainers in Henry and Dr. O (Dr. John Orwin, the team's orthopedic surgeon)," Bruesewitz said. "They were really proactive and able to get fluids into Josh and they got everything under control. I didn't think for a second that Josh wasn't going to play. He's a tough kid."
By then, Gasser had already made up his mind. "I knew I was going to play, it really wasn't a question," said Gasser, a member of the Big Ten's All-Defensive team. "But I also knew that I wasn't going to play as much as I normally do because I didn't have the energy that I normally do."
That was apparent during the pregame warm-ups. Not only did Gasser look peaked, but he appeared to be conserving energy, by design. "I got a few shots up," he said. "But I knew I would be chasing Jenkins around most of the game and I wanted to be able to maintain that for 40 minutes."
UW coach Bo Ryan did a masterful job managing his bench and getting the most out of Gasser, who played 24 minutes in the UW's hard-fought 60-57 win over Vanderbilt. "I definitely didn't want this to be my last game this year because it would have been tough to swallow," Gasser said.
Not to worry, the Boston-bound Badgers have survived on their grit and toughness and advanced to the Sweet 16 where they will run into a No. 1 seed, Syracuse, in Thursday's East Regional semifinals at the TD Garden, the 18,000-seat home venue for the Celtics and Bruins.
"It's not about how you start, it's about how you finish, that's the best way to describe it," Bruesewitz said in response to a question about the UW's 1-3 start in the Big Ten. "We knew we had a tough group, a real gritty group. Maybe the best example is Josh getting sick the night before the game.
"But what happens in the closing minutes? Jordan (Taylor) missed a shot, and who tracks it down? Josh. He gets fouled, misses the free throw, but Ryan Evans comes up with a big defensive rebound on Jenkins miss and then Berg (Jared Berggren) knocks down their in-bounds pass."
All those contributions, Bruesewitz pointed out, came from different contributors. That's how the final box score read, too. Five different players scored 10 or more points and everybody who got into the Vanderbilt game came down with at least two rebounds; highlighting the team balance.
"I've been saying this for a long time," Berggren said, "when we get all of our guys contributing that's when we are at our best. When we get Mike (Bruesewitz) shooting the ball and Ben (Brust) shooting the ball and Josh gritting through his illness ... that's just huge."
Referencing that 1-3 conference pothole in early January, Berggren said, "We still knew we had a good team, and we never got too down on ourselves. Guys kept believing and we kept fighting and we were able to turn things around and get on a winning streak."
Maybe the Badgers needed a starting point, albeit a season low point, to build from. That's how UW associate head coach Greg Gard saw it. "That 1-3 stretch toughened us, and forced us to grow up in areas where we needed to be mature in," he said. "It's all about how you respond to adversity."
As such, Ryan and his assistants leave nothing to chance. Thus with the uncertainty surrounding Gasser's availability, they got Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan ready to play against Vandy, if needed. "We wanted to make sure they knew what we were trying to do and were ready to go," Gard said.
Was there any doubt about Gasser? Not for Gard. "He's a gritty kid, a hard-nosed kid," he said. "Unless the doctor was going to make him stay in the hotel room, he was going to play. You have to credit him for gutting it out, and you have to credit his teammates for stepping up."
That has been the storyline since the players assembled to run Elver Hill at the start of classes. "We had a lot of young guys who had to grow up and be in these roles for the first time," Gard said. "I don't know in November whether they would have had the grit to get through this (Vandy)."
After Friday's practice, Gard discussed some of the keys for controlling Jenkins and beating the Commodores. "It's going to come down to a lot of blood and guts plays,'' he said. "At this stage of the season, a lot of times the hustle plays make the difference.''
When the contact escalated in The Pit, the Badgers felt like they were in their element. "It was one of the more physical games we've played, and usually Big Ten games are physical," Gasser said. "But this was right up there. That's how it's supposed to be - that's how you want it to go to the Sweet 16."
When he was on the floor, Gasser made it as tough as he could on Jenkins, and he got plenty of help from his teammates. "They were setting double and triple screens for him," Gasser said, "and he does a really good job of creating space, and getting that extra step. That's all he really needs."
The guards were not solely responsible for contesting Jenkins' shots. "I was just trying to get a hand in his face," said Berggren. "We knew that if I played off and let him come off their bigs uncontested, he's going to knock down those shots, especially coming right to left, he's money."
That's how it unfolded in the dramatic closing seconds with the Badgers clinging to a precarious two-point lead. Vanderbilt ran a play for Jenkins who came off a Festus Ezeli screen and got separation on his chaser. Moving right to left, he launched a shot from beyond the arc.
"I tried to come out on him, but I was probably a half-step late," Berggren said. "I tried to get a hand up as much as possible but he got a pretty good look. When the ball was in the air, I think my heart stopped for a second. It was straight-on and I thought, 'Please don't go in.'
"But he back-rimmed it, and Ryan (Evans) made a big play getting the rebound."
Evans fought off the 6-foot-11, 255-pound Ezeli for the board. The Vandy bench protested that he had pushed off, but Ezeli had been clearing space the whole game. "He was one of the biggest dudes I've ever played against," Evans said. "I got into his body and went up and grabbed it and got fouled."
Evans made one free throw, and Berggren deflected the in-bounds pass to seal the win - sending the Badgers into the Sweet 16. "It says so much about us as a team," Evans said. "Everyone is contributing. In order to make a deep run that's what you have to do, and we're doing it."
Jordan Taylor knew his teammates had enough grit to get it done. "When we were up by seven with six minutes left we knew it was far from over," he said. "We knew that they weren't going away quietly. But we were able to withstand their run and make just enough plays to win."
Taylor's dad was in Albuquerque but his mom didn't make the trip because of the travel expense. But she has a ticket for Boston. And the Badgers have punched theirs. "We didn't want to send Jordan and Rob home early," Bruesewitz said. "We like those guys too much."
UW freshman George Marshall lived every shooter's dream during Friday's practice at The Pit. Marshall got the "green light" to shoot just about every time that he touched the basketball while playing the role of Vanderbilt's John Jenkins on the scout team.
Now in all fairness, the Commodores are not a One Man Gang. They have more scoring options than the 21-year-old Jenkins, who's averaging 20 points. His tag team partner is Jeffery Taylor, who's averaging 16. Three other starters are averaging nine points.
That being said, Jenkins has to be focal point, and he was for Marshall.
Since arriving on campus, Marshall has gotten stronger while adding some muscle weight to his frame. At 5-foot-11, 187-pounds, though, he still falls short of measuring up physically to Jenkins (6-4, 215), the leader scorer in the Southeast Conference.
Size aside, Marshall tried to give the rotation a good picture of Jenkins, who sparked Vandy to a 79-70 win over Harvard here Thursday night. Eight of Jenkins' 12 field goal attempts were from beyond the 3-point arc and 10 of his game-high 27 points from the line.
Wisconsin's Bo Ryan cut to the "chase" on Jenkins.
Chase is the operative word. More on that later.
"He can score from the 3-point line about any way possible - step backs, fades," Ryan said. "If you know of any way to stop him, please feel free... I can get you my number. What a prolific scorer. When they use that term, I've heard them use it about a lot of guys.
"But for him (Jenkins), if you looked it up (in a dictionary), you'd see his picture."
This season, the Badgers have enacted the "Marshall Plan" in preparation for opponents whereby Marshall, who's redshirting, has tried to simulate some of the top guards in college basketball for Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser, Rob Wilson and Ben Brust.
"He's got the fastest release in America," Marshall said of Jenkins. "With our defensive guys already knowing what he's going to do, it was kind of tough for me to emulate what he does with our defense right there in my face.
"He's a great shooter and I did my best to emulate him. Almost every play was for Jenkins, so I definitely got some shots up. To shoot almost 50 percent (.481) with the amount of times that he shoots (445 field goal attempts) says a lot for him.
"Today, I just worked on getting my shot off as fast as I could."
When asked about Josh Gasser - who will draw the defensive assignment on Jenkins - Marshall said, "Josh is really a great defender, especially off the ball. He's really good at chasing. You can go through a lot of screens and he will still be right there with you."
Gasser stressed the importance of sticking to fundamental rules and concepts. "First, you can't let him get going," he said. "If he gets one or two, he's going to keep knocking them down. You have to chase hard over screens and run him off the 3-point line."
If only it was as easy as it sounds. "Obviously, he's good slashing and he can get to the rim," Gasser went on. "But really his strength is shooting 3's. I think he's averaging almost four per game which is pretty unheard of."
Jenkin's 3.8 made 3-pointers per game is actually unheard of this season, it ranks No. 1 in the NCAA.
Has Gasser faced anyone comparable to Jenkins? "I don't think anyone has the same release; he has about the quickest one around, probably the quickest we've seen," he said. "But (Ohio State's) William Buford and (Iowa's) Matt Gatens come to mind."
Team defense, as always, will be the point of emphasis for the Badgers; especially in containing Jenkins. "Getting a hand up on him is going to be the biggest thing," said Ryan Evans. "We've got to make it difficult for him to shoot."
Rob Wilson brought up the collective awareness of the five players on the floor defensively. "You just have to be aware of where he's at," he said. "You have to take him off the 3-point line. You have to be right on his tail when he's coming off screens."
Cutting to that chase, he said, "Basically you can't let him breathe out there.''
Not allowing Jenkins to catch the ball - or limiting his touches - would be an ideal scenario. In addition, UW associate head coach Greg Gard said, "You try not to make mistakes and not feed his fire, so to speak, and I can use Rob Wilson as an example."
In the Big Ten tournament, Wilson scored a career-high 30 points against Indiana. "He got free a couple of times early, got a couple to go down and then it didn't matter how they guarded him, he had some confidence going, a little Mojo going," Gard said.
Jenkins has gotten off 10 or more shots in 31 of 34 games. Twice, he was "held" to nine attempts. His low was five shots against Mississippi, and he made all five, and finished with 26 points on the strength of going 12-of-15 from the free throw line.
"He's going to hit tough shots, and you know that he's going to get his shots," Gard said. "You just can't give him the freebies that start his fire. He's too proven and too good. The biggest thing is trying to make everything as tough as possible for him.
"Just watching some clips of him, he gets it off so fast, but he gets it off when he's crowded, too. If he gets just sliver of daylight, it's gone and he gets fouled a lot on those shots. He's a savvy veteran; he kicks the leg out, twists and run into you at times."
What's the best advice Gard can give to Gasser? "Chase hard, stick to your rules," he said. "You have to be on high alert; you can't fall asleep or he'll make you pay. We're not going to change much about what we do; it's still about good habits and outworking him."
Gard suggested Gasser "has to be a tough sucker" to handle the screens that are set for a shooter like Jenkins. "You've got 6-11 guys who are trying to knock you into the third row," he said. "Our best defenders have always been mentally and physically tough."
That would be Gasser. Cutting to that aforementioned chase again, Gard concluded, "It's going to come down to a lot of blood and guts plays. When you get to this stage of the season, a lot of times the hustle plays can make the difference."
Jared Berggren knew what was coming and he was ready for it; the 6-foot-11 Wisconsin center was ready for the challenge that Montana's guards, Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar, would present by attacking the paint off the dribble.
"There were going to be some situations where I knew that I would have to pick up the ball-handler,'' he said. "The way their bigs can pick and pop, there were some times where we had to switch out and make sure we didn't give them open looks on the outside.
"I knew that I had to do a good job of protecting the rim and moving my feet when I got switched out on the guards. And I was lucky enough to get a few blocks today.''
Lucky? A few blocks? Berggren finished with a career- high seven blocked shots, which set a school record in an NCAA game (Andy Kowske had four blocks against Michigan State in the semifinals of the Final Four in 2000).
That doesn't take into account all the shots that Berggren altered, too.
Only two players in UW history have had more blocks in a single game: Brad Sellers (9 in 1982) and Kim Hughes (8 in 1973). This season, Berggren now has 6o blocked shots; the most by a Badger since Rashard Griffin had 66 in 1994. Sellers has the record with 68 in '83.
Was Berggren aware of how many shots he had blocked against Montana? "Not until after the game,'' he said. "I knew that I had a good number but I didn't realize it was seven until the guys told me (in the locker room).''
Berggren's undeniable presence guarding the rim helped contribute to the offensive struggles of Cherry who had only nine points on 3-of-14 shooting. Cherry had scored in double-figures in 19 straight games; 10 times scoring 20 or more, including a career-high 30.
Wisconsin's senior captain Jordan Taylor had a lot to do with stifling Cherry, who got into early foul trouble. As a result, what was billed as a classic matchup between elite point guards - Taylor and Cherry - turned out to be a complete mismatch in Taylor's favor.
Taylor had 17 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 0 turnovers in 36 minutes. His backcourt partner, Josh Gasser, was also a significant contributor, not only with his 12 points - a nice bounce back after going scoreless against Michigan State - but with his defense.
Gasser held Montana's Kareem Jamar to just six points (3-of-8); only the fourth time in 32 games that he has been held under 10. Jamar had five triples and scored 23 points in the Grizzlies' win over Weber State in the Big Sky championship game.
Gasser limited Jamar to one attempt from beyond the 3-point arc, which he missed.
"I knew that he has been a big part of their offense,'' Gasser said. "Just looking at their last game (against Weber State) he can pull it from 3. If you put a hand down, he'll shoot it and make it. He has been shooting a very high percentage (.445) all year.
"I just tried to limit his touches from the perimeter. Get up in him. Always have a hand up at all times because he's such a good 3-point shooter. At the same time, he can drive, too. It was a full team effort that way.''
Enter Berggren who repeatedly turned away Jamar and Cherry at the rim.
"I heard that he had seven blocks - seemed like 10,'' Gasser said. "Coming off those ball screens, Jared was sticking with the guards when they were trying to take him one-on-one. He did a real good job of eliminating them that way by getting a piece off the ball.''
Gasser felt Berggren's defense was one of the keys to the victory. Another key was how the Badgers shot the ball effectively against Montana's zone defense. The message was clear: the Griz were challenging Wisconsin to make shots; an understandable strategy.
"They played the match-up zone and kind of sagged off and hoped that we would miss a few shots,'' Gasser said. "We just wanted to get good looks, and I think we did. Ryan (Evans) got us started and we all followed him.''
Finding the soft spot in the zone, Evans had 14 of his 18 points in the first half.
"We were patient moving the ball around the perimeter,'' Gasser said. "Ryan was kind of floating on the baseline and just waiting for things to happen. When he got the ball, he was aggressive and confident.''
Vanderbilt will pose a far greater challenge on Saturday to the Badgers who need to stay aggressive and confident as a team. Physically and athletically, the Commodores compare favorably with Big Ten opponents like Michigan State and Ohio State.
Whereas Montana was undersized and overmatched that certainly won't be the case with Vandy which has proven that it can play with anyone in the nation including a heavyweight like Kentucky; a 71-64 loser to the Commodores in the SEC title game.
John Jenkins, a silky-smooth 6-4 junior guard, was the leading scorer in the conference with a 20-point average. Jenkins is particularly deadly from beyond the arc. Coming into the NCAA tournament, he had 129 triples, 75 more than Jordan Taylor.
Vanderbilt also has a Taylor - Jeffrey Taylor, who's originally from Norrkoping, Sweden, was named to the All-SEC first team, along with Jenkins. Taylor, who averages 16 points, played his high school basketball in New Mexico and won a state title at The Pit.
Throughout the season, Berggren has been matched against some talented "bigs '' in the Big Ten: Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Michigan State's Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, Indiana's Cody Zeller and Illinois' Meyers Leonard. He's more than held his own, too.
Saturday, Berggren will draw Vandy's 6-11, 250-pound senior center, Festus Ezeli, a native of Nigeria. Ezeli missed the first eight games of the season, while recovering from sprained ligaments in his knee. The Commodores are 15-6 with Ezeli in the starting lineup.
Last Sunday, Ezeli had 17 points, six rebounds and four dunks against Kentucky's freshman phenom Anthony Davis, who's likely to be the Player of the Year in college basketball. Davis had dominated Ezeli in the two previous meetings.
His teammates call him Fes. His full name is Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndelue. By any name, it's March and anything can happen in these matchups. Berggren will have to be ready again.
Freddie Owens has transitioned from climbing hills at Wisconsin under coach Bo Ryan to "climbing mountains'' at Montana under coach Wayne Tinkle, a Milwaukee native, just like Owens. The 30-year-old Owens, of course, is the starting point for any scouting report on the Griz.
"Freddie texts me and I text him now and then; we stay in touch,'' said Ryan who was fully expecting to hear from Owens later Sunday night after the No. 4 seed Badgers drew No. 13 seed Montana in the NCAA Tournament. Owens is completing his third season on Tinkle's staff.
"In my workout room at the house,'' Ryan went on, "there's a big picture of Freddie on the wall - the picture of him running down the court after he realizes that his shot went in against Tulsa. I have to look at Freddie every day when I go down there and work out.''
Laughing, he added, "I might turn it (the picture) around this week.''
Truth is, whenever Ryan thinks about Owens making that memorable 3-point shot that capped a furious rally from a 13-point deficit with four minutes left and advanced the Badgers to the Sweet 16 in the 2003 tournament, he says, "It puts a smile on my face.''
Ryan had a premonition that Wisconsin might draw Montana. "When they won (the Big Sky tournament), I said, 'That's a team we could play,''' he recounted. "To be real honest, I probably said that about some other teams, too. But there's no question I thought that was a possibility.''
Owens had the same premonition.
"I said if we can somehow crack the 13 seed, I told my wife we're going to end up playing Wisconsin, just watch,'' Owens told the Missoulian, the local newspaper in Missoula, the site of the University of Montana campus. Missoula is a little less than 200 miles from Spokane, Wash.
"I'm excited personally and the guys are excited,'' continued Owens, a product of Milwaukee Washington High School. "It's going to be a weird feeling being across the bench from coach Ryan and some of the other guys on the coaching staff.
"This is March and crazy things happen. I think it's a great opportunity for us to go out and show that we can play against a really good program and hopefully come out with a win.''
Nobody has a longer active winning streak in college basketball than the Grizzlies, who have won 14 straight games and 20 of their last 21. The last time they lost was Jan. 14 at Weber State; a setback which they have avenged twice since then.
Montana upended Weber State, 66-51, in the final game of the regular season (Feb. 28) and then won the rubber match in the title game of the Big Sky tournament (March 7). It wasn't even close, either. The Griz wound up scoring 54 points in the second half alone during an 85-66 rout.
All five starters scored in double-figures - Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward had 23 each. To say the least, this is not a deep Montana team. Tinkle subbed only twice against Weber State. Shawn Stockton played six minutes and Keron DeShields played three. Neither played in the second half.
The Grizzlies are led in scoring by Will Cherry, a 6-foot-1, 177-pound junior guard from Oakland, Calif. Besides averaging 16 points, Cherry is the school's career leader in steals with 221. He's also a lockdown defender; the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
Cherry shares the backcourt with Jamar, a 6-5, 210-pound sophomore from Los Angeles, who averaged 14 points. Both are 3-point threats. Jamar went 5-of-8 from beyond the arc against Weber State in the Big Sky finals, and has 49 triples on the season, one fewer than Cherry.
The Griz are anchored on the frontline by Derek Selvig, a 7-foot, 230-pound senior and the only player from Montana (Glendive) on the roster. The starting forwards are Ward, a 6-7, 236-pound junior from Gig Harbor, Wash., and Art Steward, a 6-4, 210-pound senior from Casper, Wyo.
The Grizzlies are no strangers to the Big Dance. This will be their second trip in three seasons. In 2010, they lost, 62-57, to New Mexico (coached by Steve Alford) in the East Regional. Montana, then a No. 14, seed, played in San Jose, Calif.
Tinkle, whose teams have won 20 or more games in each of the last three seasons, was also exposed to the NCAA Tournament as a Montana assistant under Don Holst once and Larry Krystkowiak twice. Krystokowiak is a Missoula native, a Griz alum and a former Milwaukee Bucks player and coach.
The 46-year-old Tinkle is also a Griz alum; and the sixth-leading scorer and fourth-leading rebounder in school history. His wife Lisa starred for the Lady Griz, while their daughter Joslyn has started 20 games for the Stanford women's basketball team.
During the course of this season, the Grizzlies have adopted "Ain't no Mountain High Enough'' as a theme song. They've sung the lyrics during bus rides and following road wins. Climbing a mountain would be in Owens' wheel-house since he climbed his share of hills at Elver Park during his UW career.
That's part of the big picture this week.