The NCAA's Worst Losses (Game Preview): Vanderbilt Faces #14 Wisconsin in the Round of 32

"Quit being so distant, Jeff. I only want to know how this relationship is going to progress once we get to the NBA."

Vanderbilt gave us all a quick reminder of the past before putting it behind them Thursday afternoon. After posting a 16 point lead with just five minutes to play in their opening game, the Commodores allowed Harvard to claw back to within five before finally putting a tough Crimson team away. With the win, they earned the opportunity to play an even more dangerous team on Saturday.

Vandy will get to play a stout Wisconsin team that soundly defeated Montana 73-49 in their opener to advance to the round of 32. The Badgers are led by an athletic senior point guard that traditionally gives this team fits in Jordan Taylor. He's flanked on all sides by above average talent. With strong rebounders and solid three-point shooters across the board, Wisconsin is a team that is built for postseason success.

To get back to their first Sweet Sixteen since the Derrick Byars era, Vanderbilt is going to have to play like the team that dominated Harvard for most of the second half of yesterday's game. Vandy out-rebounded their smaller opponents and used their speed and size to get open looks at the rim throughout the contest. The 'Dores shot 54% and posted a +13 rebounding advantage to carry them to the win.

It will be difficult to replicate those numbers on Saturday. Wisconsin held Montana to a steady diet of long jumpers and controlled the glass with strong positioning in their blowout win. The Badgers have shown off their versatility recently, and big offensive numbers over the past month suggest that they're more explosive than your average Big Ten team. Like Vanderbilt, they're led by a core of veterans and looking to add to their postseason success.

So can the Commodores use their athletic advantages to get past a team that has similar strengths as they do? Iowa was able to - twice. Let's take a look at what Coach Kevin Stallings can learn from those losses and his own team's experience after the jump.

Wisconsin (25-9, #14 in the AP rankings, #5 in the Pomeroy Rankings)

Worst Loss(es): at Iowa, vs Iowa (18-16, #79 KenPom, #130 CBS RPI)
Other Losses: at North Carolina, vs. Marquette, vs. Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State, at Michigan State, vs. Michigan State

Over the course of their season, the Badgers beat Ohio State, Illinois, BYU, UNLV, Purdue, and Indiana - but couldn't get past an Iowa team that lost to Campbell by 16 points. The Hawkeyes drove Wisconsin to shoot just 3-28 from long distance in their first matchup, then rode a 33 point explosion from senior Matt Gatens to secure the season sweep in the return game.

Gatens's superhuman effort carried his team on a night where students were given Gatens bobbleheads. However, that game had a very different feel than the teams' first meeting, where a balanced attack led Iowa to a seven-point win. In that meeting, six players scored six points or more for the Hawkeyes.

Keys to the Game:

  • Stick Taylor on Taylor, and don't let Ryan Evans shoot midrange jumpers. Vanderbilt found success against Kentucky by occasionally moving Jeffery Taylor off his assignment on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and onto UK's point guard Marquis Teague. The strategy paid off, as Teague went 0-7 from the field and struggled to set up his team's offense from the top of the key. [EDIT: As pointed out by Jason Fukuda, Jenkins drew the primary assignment on Teague, with Taylor occasionally adding help. I am probably thinking about games against MSU and others where Taylor picked up man-defense on a quick point guard. The general point remains the same, however - JT can effectively guard the country's quickest PGs. - TI]

    Vanderbilt could try a similar strategy on a much better point guard Saturday. Jordan Taylor has slumped after a spectacular junior campaign, but showed up Thursday with a quiet 17 point performance. He has the quickness and shooting ability to create problems against Vandy's backcourt all game. However, he'd cede speed, strength, and height advantages to the Commodores' all-SEC defender when matched up against Jeffery Taylor.

    Ryan Evans would be the odd man out in this equation. Evans is a solid small forward; he's got a great jumper from within 20 feet and he uses his shooting ability to open lanes and get to the rim. He proved against Montana that he can hit open shots all day if given the chance. However, he's not a three-point shooter (24.2% on the season) and he's not strong enough to be a threat as a post-up player. Brad Tinsley, despite his defensive deficiencies, should be able to cover Evans with some success. While Evans is three inches taller than Vandy's PG, the bulkier Tinsley showed that he can handle similarly athletic players in last week's win over the Wildcats.
  • Follow center Jared Berggren out to the three-point line. The Badgers found a way to win on Thursday without Berggren's shooting (2-9 from the field), but they weren't as lucky against Iowa. Even though the 6'10 big man is averaging 1.2 three-pointers per game, the Hawkeyes were able to shut him out from long range in their wins. He went three-less and shot just 33 percent in his two games against Iowa this year.

    Berggren is a valuable player for Wisconsin. He's a strong leaper who can defend on the interior and he is a solid shooter who can stretch opposing defenses. If he can lead Festus Ezeli away from the rim, it will open up plenty of space for guys like Taylor and Evans to operate in the paint. Ezeli is a strong enough defender to contain Berggren out to the three-point line, but he's more valuable to his team under the basket.

    However, Vandy has their own roaming big man who can be a neutralizing force. Steve Tchiengang could be the team's x-factor on Saturday night. He'll have to contain the sweet shooting big man on defense and use his own floor-stretching abilities to wear him down on offense. It's a tall task for the Commodores, but if anyone is up to the challenge, it's the big Cameroonian they call "Stevie Thunder."
  • Play like seniors. February 23rd was essentially Matt Gatens Night in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes turned their attention to the senior guard by honoring him with a bobblehead giveaway, and the 6'5" gunner didn't shy away from the spotlight. He scored 33 points - including seven threes - to will his team to victory. Each time Wisconsin made a run at Iowa's lead, Gatens was the one to respond with a basket.

    Vanderbilt will need someone to tap into that spirit on Saturday night. They've got a core of players who could potentially be playing their last game in black and gold against the Badgers. The 'Dores got balanced attacks from their big three of Taylor, John Jenkins, and Festus Ezeli in games against Kentucky and Harvard. Is Saturday the night that Jenkins catches fire from outside and lifts this team up? Will it be Taylor getting to the rim time and time again to keep Wisconsin at bay? Could it be Ezeli flushing dunks en route to a game changing performance?

    This team has already put together a memorable season in 2012 by winning the SEC title. They can create a legend if someone goes off like Gatens did against this same team last month. For hyper competitive guys like Taylor and Jenkins, this could be a much bigger factor than anything else on Saturday.
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