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March 28, 2014

Defending their name

ANAHEIM, Calif. - They rank first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with a rating of 87.2 and boast the fifth best scoring defense, yielding 58.2 points per game while holding 28 of 36 opponents to 65 points or fewer.

If these numbers made you think of the Wisconsin Badgers, you would be correct. If you believed these numbers belonged to the Wisconsin Badgers, however, you would be incorrect.

These aren't you're father's Wisconsin Badgers; these are the Arizona Wildcats.

On pace to put out the best Arizona defense since allowing 55.3 points per game in 1950-51, Arizona is limiting its opponents to 40.1 percent shooting inside the three-point-arc this season, the second best percentage in the nation.

"From day one, that's been our goal. We wanted to be a top-10 defensive team," Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said. "We've just always had defense on our mind. Obviously we have some great athletes, but most importantly everyone is willing to sacrifice for their teammates. Being out there with such great kids and teammates, it's almost easy playing defense; it's not a burden for us."

The Arizona defense will tasked with stopping an explosive offensive attack from Wisconsin when the two teams meet in the West regional final on Saturday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Ca.

Wisconsin is averaging 73.9 points per game, the best in the Bo Ryan era, and ranks fifth in the nation in offensive efficiency, scoring 1.20 points per possession. Through three games in the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers are scoring 76.3 points per contest and shooting 50.0 percent from the field.

"The unselfishness is really what makes us a dangerous team," associate head coach Greg Gard said. "We have multiple guys that can score in double figures."

During his press conference on Friday, Arizona head coach Sean Miller called Wisconsin, "one of the best offensive teams in the country."

With each team's perceived strengths outlined, it would appear the Elite 8 will come down to offense versus defense. Wisconsin's strength versus Arizona's strength. Done. Book it. Sharpie it. No objections? Good.


Not so fast.

Wisconsin wants to object, and more specifically prove Arizona is not the only team playing Saturday night that has a strong defense.

"Coach has talked the whole week about how we have to go out there and show everyone how we can play defense," Frank Kaminsky said. "We know we're a good defensive team and while it hasn't shown up at some points throughout the season, I think right now we're playing really good defense."

The Badgers have allowed more than 70 points 13 times this season, including 80 or more in three contests. In 15 games, Wisconsin's opponent has shot better than 45 percent from the floor. Wisconsin allowed North Dakota to score 85 points in a non-conference game early in the season, failed to stop Minnesota from shooting 58.9 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from three-point range, and let Indiana score 52 points in the paint.

It is no secret those numbers are not typically associated with a Wisconsin team, especially one coached by Bo Ryan, and that got the Badgers angry.

"We struggled a bit through the season, we hit a slump, and everyone was talking about how we were all offense," Kaminsky said. "We took that as an insult because we knew we were a good defensive team."

Kaminsky and the Badgers have proven such a statement is true as of late. Through three games in the NCAA Tournament this season, the Badgers are allowing teams to score 54.7 points, down 9.9 points from the regular season, shoot 37.1 percent from the field, down 6.1 percent from the regular season, and 29.2 percent from three-point range, down 5.1 percent from the regular season.

Gard mentioned the Badgers' youth and complete revamping of their frontline with the departures of Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren due to graduation last season as reasons for the extended learning curve on the defensive end of the floor.

"Having to replace our front line from last year affected our growth and put us behind defensively, especially in that second layer where fours and fives have to be the help people," Gard reasoned. "We're not anywhere near where we need to be yet, but I think we've taken a big step here in the tournament."

Apparently, the Wildcats are not aware, or simple do not care, about the Badgers' recent success on the defensive end of the floor. When asked what one of the keys to beating Wisconsin is, Arizona's Aaron Gordon said Arizona needs to, "make them defend." Miller added one of the keys to slowing down Kaminsky tomorrow night will be, "to make him play defense."

For a Wisconsin program that has heard the outside voices over the years do nothing but criticize their style of play, lack of offense and focus solely on defense, it's refreshing to hear a different tune at this time of the year.

Never did the Badgers think they would be heading to an Elite 8 game against a team looking forward to making them play defense. While it's fair to say Wisconsin has performed better offensively than defensively this season, the Badgers are out to prove they are more than "one of the best offensive teams in the country."

"It's nice," Josh Gasser said when told of coach Miller's comments. "But, we'd like to be known as a great offensive and defensive team. We're proven that we can be both of those things, it's just about putting it together, a full 40 minutes of it. Everything that's happened in the past doesn't really matter; it's going to be all about who plays better in these next 40 minutes."

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow Zack on Twitter.

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