PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team goes from an opponent it hadn’t played in almost 24 years to one the Badgers have seen a lot of lately.
Fresh off a 62-46 win over Stanford on Wednesday in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, No. 25 UW (4-0) takes on Oklahoma (4-0) today in a semifinal at Imperial Arena. Tipoff is set for 12:30 p.m. on ESPN.
This will be the fourth meeting in five seasons between the Badgers and Sooners. The first game in that sequence was a 69-56 win for the Badgers in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game four years ago.
None of the games have been particularly close. In 2014, the Frank Kaminsky-led Badgers opened the second half with a 16-2 run to break open a close game. Oklahoma committed 21 turnovers in the game and shot 29.2 percent in the second half.
The following season, the teams began a home-and-home series and the Sooners whipped the Badgers 65-48 in Norman. Oklahoma, which returned most of its roster from the previous season, busted the game open early with a 15-0 run and led by double digits for all but 13 seconds over the final 33:39 of the game. The Badgers, in the painful process of replacing Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser and others, shot 23.5 percent from the field, the program’s worst performance in nearly a decade.
In 2016, Nigel Hayes finished with 28 points and six assists to lead UW to a 90-70 win at the Kohl Center. The Badgers outscored the Sooners 53-30 in the second half to turn a three-point deficit into a rout. That burst included a 20-2 run after Oklahoma took a 58-57 lead with 11:45 remaining.
Which brings us to today.
KenPom is predicting a close game — a 78-72 win for the Badgers.
Oklahoma advanced with a 65-60 win over Florida on Wednesday. Senior guard Christian James scored a game-high 18 points to lead the way for the Sooners.
While they didn’t shoot well — 39.1 percent overall and 22.2 percent (4 of 18) from 3-point range — the Sooners made up for it by dominating the glass. Oklahoma outrebounded Florida 48-34, including 15-7 on the offensive glass.
James is averaging 21.5 points per game. He’s shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the arc (10 of 26) and 91.7 percent from the line (22 of 24).
Sophomore forward Brady Manek averages 11.5 points and a team-high 11.0 rebounds per game.
Senior point guard Aaron Calixte, a graduate transfer from Maine, averages 11.0 points per game and his backup, freshman Jamal Bieniemy, has a 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Sooners have athletic wings (James, Odomes and Kristian Doolittle) and plenty of size in their rotation. Of the 11 players who saw action against Florida, five are 6-foot-9 or taller.
Controlling the tempo is always important for the Badgers. It’ll be especially crucial against the Sooners, who are 17th nationally in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.
Ford returns after knee surgery
I couldn’t find a good place to squeeze this in my game story from UW’s win over Stanford, but it was obviously significant that sophomore forward Aleem Ford returned to the lineup.
Exactly three weeks from having surgery to repair an injured left knee, Ford played seven minutes against the Cardinal. He didn’t attempt any shots and grabbed one rebound.
Ford looked, well, like he hadn’t played in three weeks. Heck, the first time he practiced since the surgery was on Tuesday.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be long,” Gard said. “It was just going to be in short stints, just to try to get him back in the feel.”
If Ford can work off the rust and gain some confidence in his knee over the next week or so — the Badgers have two games remaining here and host North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday — perhaps he’ll be closer to full strength once the Badgers begin Big Ten play at Iowa on Nov. 30.
A healthy Ford would not only provide a much-needed boost for UW’s frontcourt depth, it’d add some scoring help off the bench.
“We’re working with a teaspoon right now,” Gard said of how Ford will be used. “We’ll maybe gravitate to a tablespoon in the next couple of days.”
Block party for Reuvers
UW sophomore forward Nate Reuvers blocked 26 shots in 28 games as a true freshman. He already has 16 through four games this season, including nine against Stanford to tie Brad Sellers’ single-game program record that had stood for almost 36 years.
Reuvers was an equal-opportunity swatter: He blocked three shots by Stanford point guard Daejon Davis, and two each from freshman guard Cormac Ryan, sophomore forward KZ Okpala and sophomore forward Oscar Da Silva.
UW coaches raved early season about Reuvers’ understanding of the program’s defensive concepts on how to guard ball screens. It’s one of the biggest reasons they yanked off his redshirt when some of the upperclassmen weren’t performing in those areas.
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Now, Reuvers is 30 pounds heavier and can chest up on defense without being pushed backward. He also does a good job — at least most of the time — of picking and choosing when to go for blocks. There were a few times against the Cardinal where Reuvers got too antsy and fell for pump fakes.
“He’s got a good feel,” Gard said. “In order to be a good shot blocker. It’s one thing to be able to go off the floor, but you have to understand timing, when to, when not to and he’s long. He’s 6-11. When he uses his wings, he really can alter shots. …
“That’s a heck of an eraser back there. He can cover up for mistakes. When we’re trying to run guys off the 3-point line and we have somebody like that sitting behind us, that just gives you more confidence in the defense. But again, we don’t want to have to rely on that.”
More from Wednesday's win
• I went heavy on UW’s defense in the game story but didn’t include this quote from Gard, which I thought was interesting:
“Everybody talks about confidence on the offensive end, making shots, those types of things, being in a rhythm offensively and the synergy that comes with playing together as an offensive team,” he said. “But that can be flipped to the other end of the floor, too, the confidence that you know we can rely on our defense and we’re going to have to. That’s always been a staple of this program and now having a more mature group, they understand.”
• The Badgers drew seven fouls in the opening 4:42 of the second half against Stanford. UW was in the double bonus for the final 13:42 and ended up going 15 of 18 from the line after halftime after attempting only one free throw in the first half.
Sophomore guard Brad Davison spent the most time at the line, going 8 of 9 in the second half.
Some of that disparity between the first and second halves was how the game was called. Things the officials were letting go in the first half resulted in whistles after halftime.
But Gard also thought the Badgers did a better job attacking the rim and, once they got in the paint, of drawing obvious contact.
“We cut better at the start of the second half,” Gard said. “I thought we stood (in the first half). I noticed a lot of possessions, we stood and didn’t really pressure the way that we should. I thought the second half, right from the gate, we were cutting and we were more physical in our cuts and we attacked the paint and we finished better.”
• It was bound to happen, but D’Mitrik Trice finally came back to earth.
After going 13 of 20 from 3-point range in UW’s first three games of the season, the sophomore point guard missed all five of his attempts from beyond the arc against the Cardinal.
Trice finished with 16 points, matching senior center Ethan Happ for game-high honors, but it took Trice a lot of attempts to reach that total. He was 6 of 20 overall from the field and, I thought for the first time this season, really forced some shots.
Some items of interest from off the court:
• UW’s holiday tournament next season will be in the Cayman Islands.
This year’s Cayman Islands Classic ended Wednesday and included Creighton, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia State, Illinois State, Boise State, Akron and St. Bonaventure.
I don’t know anything about next year’s field other than the Badgers are going to be in it.
• As has been previously reported, UW had Ohio State transfer Micah Potter in for a visit earlier this month.
Potter, who abruptly left the Buckeyes just before the start of the season, is apparently also considering Clemson and Vanderbilt.
If Potter chooses the Badgers, he’d arrive in time for second semester and would have at least 1½ seasons of eligibility remaining starting the second semester of the 2019-20 season.
That timeline could be pushed up because UW would almost certainly would file a waiver on Potter’s behalf with the NCAA to try to get him eligible for the start of next season, giving him two full seasons of eligibility. Good luck guessing how the NCAA would rule on that waiver because there doesn’t seem to be much consistency in that department. And who knows how transfer rules, which are constantly changing, will even look by the time next season begins?
Alex Illikainen, who left the program earlier this month and will try to play elsewhere as a graduate transfer next season, will keep his scholarship at UW through the 2018-19 school year.
But the Badgers still have an open scholarship after Andy Van Vliet’s departure in the spring, so there’s one immediately available to Potter.
The 6-9 Potter didn’t put up big numbers in two seasons at Ohio State — he averaged 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 59 career games, including 16 starts — but he’d add some experience to a UW frontcourt that loses Happ and senior forward Charlie Thomas after this season.