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Lucas: Badgers get jump-start on planning for American's attack

Selection Sunday

Mike Lucas
UWBadgers.com Insider
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Varsity Magazine

March 17, 2014


MADISON, Wis. -- Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Traevon Jackson were perched on the scorer’s table. Evan Anderson, Jordan Smith, Bronson Koenig, Frank Kaminsky and Duje Dukan were sitting in the chairs along the home sideline at the Kohl Center. Aaron Moesch, Jordan Hill, Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter and Riley Dearing were standing on the floor with Zach Bohannon.

Class was in session Sunday.

Less than an hour after Wisconsin learned the identity of its first opponent in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Bohannon was schooling the scout team on the nuances of the Princeton offense, the staple of the American University Eagles. The No. 2-seeded Badgers and the No. 15 Eagles will meet Thursday in a second-round West Region game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

“I’m just trying to get the scout team prepared so they know how complex of a system it really is,” said Bohannon, a fifth-year senior and graduate student. “It’s all about spacing and ball movement and patience and making the defense relax. So hopefully some of our same principles that we’ve had throughout our season can carry on to stopping the Princeton.”

Bohannon, a 6-foot-6 forward, played two years in the Princeton offense at the Air Force Academy before transferring to Wisconsin. Although he has since seen very little court time with the Badgers -- appearing in just 12 games this season -- he has been an integral component of the scout team that simulates an opponent during practice for the starters and top reserves in the rotation.

Shortly after Wisconsin’s draw was announced on the CBS Selection Show, Bohannon got a text from a friend who gave Bohannon a heads-up on American’s use of the Princeton offense under coach Mike Brennan. The Eagles’ first-year head coach was a four-year starter at Princeton under the legendary Pete Carril, who has been credited with defining and refining the offense.

“Once he told me of the Princeton connection, I thought, ‘Oh, great, that’s what I did at Air Force,’” Bohnanon said. “So I knew I had to get the scout team together.”

Bohannon had been called upon in each of the previous two seasons, including his redshirt year, to share his knowledge whenever the Badgers faced Northwestern’s version of the system that was installed by former head coach Bill Carmody, who had replaced Carril at Princeton. Bohannon has always taken great pride with his role on the scout team.

“I thought, ‘Oh, great, that’s what I did at Air Force,’” Bohannon said of American’s use of the Princeton offense. “So I knew I had to get the scout team together.”

“The more that we know (as scout teamers), the more that it helps out our team,” he pointed out. “And that’s what we’ve kind of built with Dan (Fahey) and J.D. (Wise) and some of the older guys from last year with the Northwestern scout. The more that we can understand it (the Princeton offense), the more that we can grasp it, the better off our team can be.”

On the concepts of the Princeton offense, in short, Bohannon said, “They’re trying to get lay-ups and 3-point shots. One through five on the floor has to be a decision-maker. They have to be smart, intelligent players. They wouldn’t be at an American or Princeton if they weren’t. They definitely have to have a high basketball IQ and that’s one of the things that we have to be prepared for.”

The Badgers will also have to deal with American’s defensive prowess. The Eagles limited Boston University to only 36 points in the Patriot League tournament championship game. They have allowed 56 or fewer points to their last six opponents. “If we can play defense like we have been all year,” guard Jesse Reed told the Washington Post, “I think we might be able to give them a good game.”

Brennan should have a good understanding of what it takes to compete on the NCAA stage. He made it twice to the tournament as a player at Princeton and twice more as an American assistant coach. In 2008, No. 2-seeded Tennessee had only a 53-51 lead with 5:45 remaining before holding the Eagles to just one basket the rest of the way for a 72-57 win in the first round.

In 2009, the Eagles were also on the brink of a major upset of No. 3-seeded Villanova. American led by as many as 14 points in the second half before the Wildcats responded with a late 19-2 run that allowed them to escape with an 80-67 victory. “It wasn’t that we took them lightly at all,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said afterward. “But they were probably better prepared and executed better.”

That first round game in the East Region was staged in Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, one of the Wildcats’ homes away from campus. Yet, despite what should have been a substantial “home court” advantage for ‘Nova, the Eagles, a 17-point underdog, were not intimidated by the environment. Rest assured that Brennan will remind his players of that little piece of history before coming to Milwaukee.

“It’s March,” Wisconsin senior guard Ben Brust reminded everyone Sunday night on not taking anything for granted before speaking indirectly about American. “Teams didn’t just get here by the luck of the draw. They got here with hard work over the whole year. Whoever you play is going to bring it -- it’s not just going to be given to you -- you have to go out there and take it.”

•  •  •  •

So what did the Badgers learn from their loss to Mississippi in last year’s NCAA tournament?

“You have to be the aggressor and the one making the statements,” Brust said. “You can’t be on your heels … It’s never a bad thing when you get to play an NCAA tournament game in your home state. But at the end of the day we have to show up and get the job done for the 40 minutes that we’re guaranteed.”

The Badgers seemingly played only 20 minutes against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament and it was costly. The 49 points that they scored on 60 percent shooting in the second half was not enough to overcome a first half in which they shot 28 percent.

“We have to come out and play the full 40 -- we can’t have lapses like that,” Brust said. “We know what we can’t do if we want to be successful.”

It was a painful lesson for UW freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, who had combined for 29 points in Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota. They failed to make a basket against the Spartans. “The silver lining in that game was that we learned some things,” Hayes said. “We’re trying to get refocused and ready now for our third and final season. We want to make sure we finish it the right way.”

“It’s never a bad thing when you get to play an NCAA tournament game in your home state,” Brust said. “But at the end of the day we have to show up and get the job done for the 40 minutes that we’re guaranteed.”

The Big Dance is the third season, the final leg of the journey. “Not winning the Big Ten tournament will motivate us to play even harder,” said Sam Dekker, who’s excited about playing in Milwaukee. “No jet lag and we’ll have a good fan base there. All in all, hopefully, it should be a home court advantage-type-of feel -- to be in a comfortable arena around recognizable faces.”

Wisconsin’s junior guard Josh Gasser will likely know more faces in the crowd than any of his teammates since Gasser is from Port Washington, which is about 25 miles from the Bradley Center.

“Just to be in the tournament is a great feeling,” Gasser said. “But it also means something extra special that you’re playing in Milwaukee in front of your home crowd. It means that you did something pretty good this year -- you deserve what you got (seeding) -- and now we have to take advantage of it.”

What a difference a year makes for Gasser, who missed the 2013 season and postseason because of knee surgery. “This time last year was definitely the hardest time for me,” he said. “Obviously a couple of weeks after the injury were tough. But the hardest part was watching our guys compete in the championship-type moments and not being able to help at all.”

UW coach Bo Ryan has been asked repeatedly throughout the season about Gasser’s impact on this team. “What he brings is that he’s just a guy who plays -- he just plays,” Ryan said again. “He just likes to beat people. I think he just likes to get into them, he likes to be the one that’s on top, to be the one, when it’s over, who says, ‘OK, I got my licks in, I played my hardest, I tried to help my team win.”’

Ryan then paid Gasser the ultimate Bo Ryan compliment by saying, “He’s a guy who has never done anything for himself or tried to bring any attention to himself. To me, if I’m playing, and he’s playing with me, I’m playing harder. He’ll just be one of the guys that you’ll always remember for his grit and toughness. But he still has some things to learn … in case Josh hears this.”

Gasser couldn’t help but hear that. Gasser and Brust were the two players who took part in Sunday’s press conference. They were seated next to Ryan in the media room, while Bohannon was conducting his Princeton Offense 101 clinic on the Kohl Center floor. Ryan kidded Gasser about how old he must feel after taking all of those charges and how he has considered putting Gasser in a home.

That drew a laugh from Gasser, who admitted that he didn’t attend Wisconsin’s games when they played Richmond and Pittsburgh at the Bradley Center in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. He was 12. “It would have been nice to be there,” he conceded. “But, at that point in time, I was just trying to imagine myself playing there and I obviously never thought that would happen.”

To which Ryan chimed in, “You wanted to play at Richmond?”’

More laughs.

Ryan had some fond and not so fond memories from that Milwaukee experience. Against Richmond, the Badgers trailed by 13 points with 13 minutes left but went on a 36-8 run to survive and advance. On the crowd support, Ryan said, “It really helped us, without a doubt, during that comeback when Clayton (Hanson), Devin (Harris) and Wilk (Mike Wilkinson) and everybody else started clicking.”

Hanson, Harris and Wilkinson hit clutch 3-pointers during a frenetic stretch in which the Badgers scored on 19 consecutive possessions. But they weren’t able to sustain that momentum for 40 minutes in a second-round game that featured 10 ties and 11 lead changes. An under-seeded Pitt team was stronger down the stretch and held on for 59-55 win in what was Harris’ final game at Wisconsin.

Stuff happens at this time of the year, memorable stuff, one way or another.

“If you want to be remembered as being a good team,” Gasser said, “it’s always nice to perform well in March.”

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