TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—For one half, Kansas State looked like the team coach Frank Martin had retooled midseason, slicing off screens, cutting to the basket, dropping in 3-pointers while making every shot a chore for Utah State at the other end.
Once they came out of halftime, the Wildcats reverted back to the team that had caused that tear-it-up response from their coach, unable to get good shots or stop the Aggies, turning a game that appeared to be a runaway into a grinder.
And Kansas State (23-10) doesn’t have much time to straighten it out.
Have another half like that on Saturday and Wisconsin will wear the Wildcats out.
“Utah State wasn’t able to take advantage of it that night,” Kansas State senior point guard Jacob Pullen said. “But you play a team like Wisconsin who really works the shot clock at the end, then is also a really good defensive team, you can’t have mistakes like that or your season is over.”
Pullen is heaping praise on the Badgers (24-8) now, but just a few days ago they were a trendy pick to be on the wrong end of an upset in their opening game.
The fourth seed in the Southeast region, Wisconsin limped into the NCAA tournament, blown out by top-ranked Ohio State in the season finale, then were embarrassed 36-33 by Penn State in the lowest scoring game in Big Ten tournament history.
None of that seemed to matter once the Badgers hit the NCAA tournament.
Quickly putting to rest any notion of an upset, they stormed over No. 13 seed Belmont in the second half of Thursday’s second-round game, hitting 12 3-pointers while disrupting nearly every part of the Bruins’ offense on the way to a 72-58 win.
The game typified Wisconsin’s season: Stick with what has worked for coach Bo Ryan for years and the Badgers win, get caught up in what the other team’s doing and they lose.
“This team has done a pretty good job to get here for a group that wasn’t expected by some to (be here),” said Ryan, in his 10th season as Wisconsin’s coach. “I kind of liked them back in October and so I think they’ve done a good job of knowing what they can do and trying to stay away from what they’re not very good at.”
The matchup with Kansas State is a contrast in styles, all about getting the other team to play at a pace they don’t want to.
Kansas State, the region’s fifth seed, is long and athletic, uses its where’d-they-all-come-from defense to set up easy baskets in transition going the other way. At their best, the Wildcats make things helter skelter for their opponents, jumping into passing lanes and stripping dribblers, turning the game into a chaos only they seem to understand.
“We just have to do exactly what we’re trying to do, play at our own pace, play at the pace that we’re comfortable with,” Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor said. “And we feel like we can make plays at a lot of speeds (if we) just stay within ourselves and within our scheme.”
That scheme revolves around one of the country’s stingiest defenses and a ball-control offense that’s watching-grass-grow patient.
Though not as athletic as K-State, Wisconsin does have plenty of length and a roster full of players who can shoot from the perimeter. The Badgers work the ball side to side or have Taylor get into the lane and kick it out to their shooters, often with the shot clock winding down.
And they do it … very … slow.
“If you can speed up a Bo Ryan team, it will probably be the first time in 30 years that happens,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said.
A lot of the my-pace, your-pace tug-o-war will come down to one of the best early tournament matchups between point guards: Taylor vs. Pullen, two heady, consistent players who can score in bunches.
Taylor led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio during the regular season, getting 4.03 assists for every turnover. He averaged 18.1 points while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and opened the NCAA tournament—his third—by scoring 21 points on 5-of-9 shooting from long range.
Pullen has developed into one of the best players in K-State history during his four years. A preseason All-American, he became the first Wildcats player to be named All-Big 12 first team in consecutive seasons and also was a unanimous choice for the defensive team as well.
Pullen averaged 19.5 points and 3.0 assists during the regular season, kicked off the NCAA tournament by scoring 22 points while hitting some big free throws down the stretch against Utah State despite missing practice with a fever the day before.
“Any time you play a player like he is, players like that definitely bring out the best in you,” Taylor said. “You definitely have to bring your A game.”
The Wildcats can certainly understand that after what happened against Utah State.