Well-fed Wisconsin helps itself to Elite Eight berth

LOS ANGELES — I suppose this means we don’t have to ask what Wisconsin basketball players have for breakfast most days.

“If you take a look at our guys, they’re here, they bought in, they’re so committed, the difference between being involved and committed,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “You sit down to breakfast with bacon and eggs. You look at the eggs, and you know the chicken was involved. You look at the bacon, and you know the pig was committed.

“I have a lot of committed guys in that locker room. They’re all committed. They’re at Wisconsin for the right reasons.”

Never was that more apparent than Thursday night.

Wisconsin rallied late, and because of it will play for a second straight trip to the Final Four, having eliminated North Carolina 79-72 in a West Regional semifinal of the NCAA Tournament at Staples Center.

The Badgers advanced to an Elite Eight game Saturday against second-seeded Arizona, a 68-60 winner over Xavier in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Roy Williams says he rarely looks at the number, that he focuses instead on his team’s shooting percentage and the opponent’s shooting percentage and rebound margin and turnovers and how many free throws each team attempted.

That’s a whole lot of reading.

“Sometimes,” the Tar Heels coach said, “I’ll get to the stuff at the bottom of the page.”

That’s where other numbers can be found on any final stat sheet, including one for fast-break points. It gives you some idea if the Tar Heels were able to control the sort of pace that defines how they want to play over 40 minutes.

Which is to say at break-neck speed.

That final number read 10 for North Carolina, one reason the Tar Heels couldn’t maintain a second-half lead that stretched to seven with about 11 minutes remaining.

The other reason is a close friend of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

You’re not going to beat Wisconsin on a night in which it commits only five turnovers and makes 20 of 23 free throws. A night in which it hits 58 percent of its shots in the second half. You’re not going to beat the Badgers by hoping they miss enough so you can take advantage in the open court.

North Carolina did a little too much hoping in those final 11 minutes.

You also can’t prepare, no matter how good he is, for Sam Dekker to play this well.

Sitting in the front row of Wisconsin’s cheering section, directly behind the team bench, was Rodgers and his actress girlfriend, Olivia Munn.

Dekker sure knows how to impress a buddy.

The junior scored a career-high 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting, a 6-foot-9-inch future NBA forward who is about as Wisconsin as a kid can be. He is from Sheboygan, located on the western shore of Lake Michigan and about 50 miles north of Milwaukee.

Dekker’s last shot in high school won the Division 5 state championship, and it came at the Kohl Center, home to the Badgers. He knew as a sophomore at Area Lutheran High School that he wanted to stay home and play for Ryan. He knew he wouldn’t leave.

“I thought I played a pretty good game, but it wasn’t a complete 40 minutes,” Dekker said. “You just have to stay with it and keep following the game plan. No matter what the score, whether we’re up or down, our coaches are going to coach the way they always do. If we get enough stops, we’ll be fine.

“We played in the Final Four last year. That helps you grow up a lot. When you have guys out there that have experience in big games, you’re just going to be yourself and execute like you know and have been taught.”

It’s not just some Big Ten Conference cliche people like to throw around when talking about the Badgers. They really are tough.

They are Dekker and 7-foot senior star Frank Kaminsky (19 points, all but four in the second half), but they also are senior Josh Gasser, who only received a scholarship when another recruit de-committed and yet hit key shots during a 19-7 run that earned Wisconsin a lead late. They are senior Traevon Jackson, who returned to the court for the first time since breaking his foot Jan. 11 and made his first shot — a 3-pointer.

One thing that makes Wisconsin unique is it averages just 59.8 possessions, seventh-fewest in the nation, and yet is efficient enough to be 34-3 and one win from another Final Four.

But what really sets it apart is a mindset that others find so difficult to match.

“Congratulations to Wisconsin,” Williams said. “I’m tired of congratulating people. I feel like I’ve done that more this year than I felt good about myself. But they have really, really tough kids. I watched the Michigan State tape when they were beaten. They won. The tape where Michigan led a huge portion of the game. (Wisconsin) won. It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small. They make their free throws. They chase down balls. They’re tough enough to make big shots. They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason.”


They’re like the pig.

Committed to the end.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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