Wildcats and Badgers meet with the Final Four on the line
Win this game, and you go down in your school's history as one of the better teams it has ever assembled. Lose it and you are just another good team.
Arizona will battle Wisconsin in an Elite 8 matchup, with the winner going to the Final Four. The Wildcats have been to four Final Fours, but none since 2001. The Badgers have previously been to two, the last of which came in 2000.
The teams have met in the Tournament before, with Wisconsin winning in 2000 and Arizona coming out on top in 2006, but neither of the matchups had this much on the line.
For the players, it's about legacy; for the coaches -- Arizona's Sean Miller and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan -- it's a chance to shed the label of "one of the best coaches to never reach a Final Four."
Let's break the game down:
• Dec. 14 - Arizona 72, Michigan 70
The Arizona Wildcats had been the No. 1 team in the nation for just a few days when they went into Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines.
The Wildcats trailed for much of the game, falling behind by as many as 11 points early in the second half. But Arizona fought back to make it a game, finally taking a 63-62 lead with just 2:32 left. The teams traded baskets from there, with the lead changing hands, too. It wasn't until Nick Johnson made a free throw with seven seconds remaining that the Wildcats were completely out of danger, and Gabe York's missed free throw with two seconds left gave Michigan one more chance at a desperation heave, but it missed and Arizona won the game.
In that game, Brandon Ashley led Arizona with 18 points, while Johnson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon all tallied 14. The Wolverines shot 50 percent against a usually-stout Arizona defense, but the ‘Cats outrebounded their opponents by a 37-24 margin, including 17-6 on the offensive glass.
• Jan. 18 - Michigan 77, Wisconsin 70
The third-ranked Badgers struggled to shoot as well as defend, which was a bad mixture against a very capable Wolverines squad.
Wisconsin shot just 43.3 percent from the field in the game, and while four players reached double figures in scoring (Josh Gasser, Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust, Sam Dekker), it wasn't enough as Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert combined for 43 Michigan points in the win.
The Badgers were outrebounded by one in the loss.
• Feb. 16 - Wisconsin 75, Michigan 62
Now this was more like it for the Badgers.
No. 21 Wisconsin went on the road and had their way with No. 15 Michigan, carrying a 34-19 lead into halftime and cruising the rest of the way.
Frank Kaminsky led the way with 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting, adding 11 rebounds, one steal and one block to his stat line. Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser added 15 and 13, respectively, as the Badgers shot a healthy 44.8 percent from the field while making 7-of-17 three-point attempts.
On the flip side, they held Michigan to 40 percent shooting, and even outrebounded the Wolverines by a 34-30 margin. Oh, and Wisconsin had just two turnovers in the game.
• Feb. 6 - Arizona 67, Oregon 65
In their first full game without forward Brandon Ashley and first game since their first loss of the season, the Wildcats got through an uneven night and poor shooting effort to escape with a win.
It was a struggle most of the evening for Arizona, who trailed deep into the second half, but T.J. McConnell's three-pointer with 1:33 gave the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.
Nick Johnson led Arizona with 18 points, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson adding 14 and Kaleb Tarczewski 12. The Wildcats were outrebounded in the contest and also shot a lesser percentage from the floor.
• March 8 - Oregon 64, Arizona 57
Arizona's five-game win streak was no match for a rolling Oregon squad, though for much of the game it appeared the Wildcats would finish their regular season with a good road win.
In fact, the Wildcats took a 4-2 lead 1:44 into the game and held it until there was 5:08 remaining. However, the Ducks took the lead with 4:22 left and the Wildcats offense went cold, allowing the home team to earn a much-needed win over the third-ranked 'Cats.
Arizona shot just 42.3 percent from the field and made only 2-of-11 three-point attempts. Aaron Gordon led the way with 21 points, but it wasn't enough for the Wildcats to beat a Ducks team that made 10-of-19 threes that afternoon.
• March 22 - Wisconsin 85, Oregon 77
If Wisconsin goes on to the Final Four, this game will be remembered as the catalyst.
The Badgers trailed for much of the first 20 minutes, as Oregon took a 49-37 lead into the half.
But the second half was a different story for Wisconsin, who battled back and took the lead just 7:31 into the frame. The teams went back and forth from there until Ben Brust hit a three with 1:09 left, giving the Badgers a lead they would not surrender.
Frank Kaminsky's 19 points led a balanced effort that saw five Badgers score in double figures. Wisconsin outrebounded the Ducks 36-26, and held a 14-3 edge on the offensive glass.
The teams combined to make 19-of-46 three-point attempts.
Keys for Arizona
More of the good Nick Johnson, please
With the way he finished against San Diego State, no Arizona fan will be upset with junior guard Nick Johnson. However, he was this close to being the game's goat rather than the hero, especially with how he shot the ball.
Johnson missed his first 10 shot attempts against the Aztecs while failing to get to the free throw line until late in the game. The Wildcats were able to survive his game-long slump long enough for him to break out of it late, but they can't count on doing it again against a very good Wisconsin team.
Johnson doesn't have to erupt for 30 points or anything, but he must be effective from the onset if the Wildcats are to avoid playing catchup the entire evening.
Stay out of foul trouble
Among the many things that went wrong for Arizona Thursday night, the foul trouble beset upon Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson may have been the most concerning.
Tarczewski, the center, was limited to just 20 minutes of playing time, finishing with seven points, one rebound, one assist and two blocks. Hollis-Jefferson was on the floor more, tallying 15 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes of action, but was unavailable for the finish after fouling out with 4:42 to play. San Diego State is good, but Wisconsin is better. Arizona is not a particularly deep team -- especially up front -- and having to go against the Badgers' big frontcourt without their better players could spell doom for the top-seeded ‘Cats.
Win the battle on the boards
Wisconsin is not a good rebounding team; Arizona is. That needs to show Saturday.
The Badgers pull down an average of 33.2 rebounds per game, which ranks 261st in college basketball. The Wildcats, on the other hand, average 38.9 boards per game, which ranks 18th.
Much of Arizona's offense revolves around second and third chances around the basket, meaning Tarczewski, Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon must own the glass and clean up some misses.
Wisconsin is a Big Ten team, but they're not particularly big. Frank Kaminsky is their only 7-footer, and their next tallest major contributor is 6-foot-8 Sam Dekker. Arizona's front line has a size and athleticism advantage, and it must show.
The ‘Cats struggled on the boards early against the Aztecs Thursday, and it cost them dearly. Dominating that aspect Saturday could propel them to the Final Four.
Keys for Wisconsin
Come up big Kaminsky
One of the interesting matchups in this game will be Arizona's defense with Frank Kaminsky.
Wisconsin's leading scorer is averaging 13.7 points per game and shooting 36.6 percent from three-point range. That wouldn't seem so special, except Kaminsky is a seven-footer who could present a problem for Arizona.
Do you put Kaleb Tarczewski on him and risk the big man having to extend his defense away from the basket to the three-point line? How about 6-foot-9 Aaron Gordon, who is not exactly a great matchup with his size or length?
If Kaminsky can make shots from the outside, the Wildcats may have some problems.
Don't turn the ball over
Both Arizona and Wisconsin excel at protecting the basketball. Either turning the ball over would be a problem, but for the Badgers, who are a better half-court offensive team than the Wildcats, preventing the easy buckets and big dunks that come with turnovers is paramount.
Assuming Wisconsin doesn't give up easy buckets, their defense may be good enough to keep the inconsistent Arizona offense in check.
Send Aaron Gordon to the line
Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon is has made 22-of-30 field goal attempts in the NCAA Tournament. He's also made just 2-of-10 free throw attempts.
Most of Gordon's scoring comes from around the hoop on layups and dunks, meaning there's often a chance for the defense to foul him before the bucket. It would behoove Wisconsin to do so.
Sure, there's always the chance that Gordon makes a few free throws and thereby ruins the strategy. But if history is any indication, it is much better to send the forward to the free throw line than it is to let him get an easy bucket.
Big-time dunks pump a team up; missed free throws can deflate it.
Adam Green, Web Content Editor - ArizonaSports.com
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