Wisconsin-Notre Dame preview: Badgers face challenge in balanced, high octane offense

At first glance, this year’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Wisconsin Badgers squads are practically mirror images of each other. Their most frequently used lineups are nearly identical player-for-player, they boast equally balanced scoring attacks with every starter scoring in or around double figures, they each play at a methodical tempo that ranks amongst the bottom-30 in the nation, and they both braved top power conferences en route to nearly identical records and seeding in the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, this striking superficial resemblance is not just limited to this year’s teams, but extends to the established identity of both basketball programs in the past decade.

“I think there are a lot of  similarities between our two programs,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “It seems like every year nobody talks about Notre Dame through the first week of the tournament but you get to that second weekend and there they are. The names change, the numbers change, but their production on the floor and how they develop their players does not change, which is much like us [as a program].”

“I have the utmost respect for the Wisconsin program and what they’ve been able to build —they are a little bit like us,” echoed Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. “They always run what they always run [offensively] and they’re a team that’s supposed to win every close game.”

However, regardless of the parallels between the two programs’ past and between their similarly constructed present, the narrative going into this game is most certainly one of contrast rather than congruence.

The Badgers come into this game hanging their hat on a suddenly elite defense that has gotten them to this point in March.

“Last week we grew as much defensively as we had all year in the two games against Pittsburgh and Xavier,” Gard said. “Our toughness level and our commitment to the defensive end has grown exponentially in the last two, three weeks, but really showed its face last weekend [in wins against Pittsburgh and Xavier].”

The Irish, on the other hand, struggle defensively but have developed into a dominant machine on the offensive end of the floor that can win games on its own.

“We have one of the most efficient offenses in the country,” boasts center Zach Auguste, one of the vital cogs in that machine.

“We pretty much play positionless in a four-around-one around Zach,” says teammate V.J. Beachem. “It allows for the freedom to cut, move the ball, drive, and knock down open shots which we can all do.”

When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object something has to give, and that outcome hinges on the approach from both sides of the ball. The importance of derailing the potent Irish attack is not lost on Gard and his team.

“It will be what we do as a team defensively that will win us this game,” Gard asserted. “We’re going to have to be very good in transition, and we have to get out on shooters, but it all starts with being very good in the gaps in terms of taking away dribble penetration.”

The player who will go for that dribble penetration every second when he’s on the floor is Notre Dame point guard and leading scorer Demetrius Jackson.

“Whenever you have a really good point guard, you always have a chance to win,” Gard said. “They have a terrific one in Jackson, and we know we’ll have to be very good [on him] to win.”

For Mike Brey and his high-octane offense, Jackson’s penetration is an element that they must establish to create the open jump shots and in-close opportunities that their many shooters and scoring bigs thrive on. The way to do that for him is to increase his team’s usual tempo.

“You have to try to get up and down the floor on [Wisconsin],” Brey said. “For our ball handlers like Jackson, it’s gonna be a long night if he has to always play against their set defense.”

To help out Jackson against the Badgers’ stifling defense, Brey will turn to a creative approach that has paid dividends for him over the past few games.

“We might trend towards putting two ball handlers on the floor to take some of the load off of Demetrius and you might see [backup point guard] Matt Ferrell on the floor with him a lot,” Brey explained. “With Matt Ferrell in the lineup we will have another guy who can push it in transition and get us some easy buckets before they get set.”

As is often the case with Wisconsin basketball, it looks as if tempo will be a defining factor to differentiate these two equal yet opposite teams. If number of possessions are low, shot clocks are long, and point totals stay in the 50s or 60s, Gard and the Badgers will likely walk out as the victors. Should the game take on a more up and down feel and creep up into the 70s and 80s, they will likely be back in Madison two days sooner than they would have liked.

The game tips Friday night at 6:27 p.m. CT on TBS, with Notre Dame standing as the one-point favorite.

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