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Badgers, all business on court but starstruck off it, move into Elite Eight

Josh Gasser, Wisconsin BadgersJosh Gasser and the Badgers passed a major test by throttling a red-hot Baylor team in the Sweet 16. (John W. McDonough/SI)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Based on Wisconsin’s postgame locker room, you would never know the Badgers are just one win away from the Final Four.

For some perspective: Bo Ryan has four Division III national championships, but has never been to the Division I Final Four. On Saturday, the Badgers will play in just their second Elite Eight of his 13 seasons. They haven’t been to the Final Four since 2000, an eternity for an elite team from one of the best conferences of the country.

But after dispatching Baylor 69-52 in the Sweet 16 at the Honda Center, the Wisconsin locker room seemed rather … blah. No, players were not surprised at how well they executed the game plan or that they were in control for almost the entire 40 minutes. Yes, they’re aware of what’s on the line in the West Regional final against Arizona. But this was not the time for wild celebrations; that came last week after erasing a 12-point halftime deficit and beating Oregon in the round of 32.

The Badgers don’t think it was that weird that Baylor scored just 16 first-half points (second-lowest total in the Scott Drew era) or that they perfectly dissected the Bears’ vaunted 2-3 zone (lots of high-low and inside-out action led to 36 Wisconsin points in the paint). But there was at least one moment junior guard Josh Gasser didn’t see coming.

Gasser was on his way back to the locker room when he caught sight of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the stands.

“I ran back to him and gave him a little hug,” Gasser said before crinkling his brow. “I don’t know why I did that.”

Rodgers joined the Badgers in their locker room afterward for what Gasser called a "fun visit" but didn’t say much. “We were just kinda staring at him,” Gasser said. “It probably made him uncomfortable.”

Baylor, which shot just 31.6 percent from the field, can probably relate.

One of the hottest teams in the NCAA tournament, Baylor could never in a groove. The Bears got a handful of open looks, especially early, but missed many of them badly, as the Badgers built an 18-8 lead midway through the first half. And against Wisconsin, 10 points behind can feel like 20 points behind.

By now, you’ve probably heard the narrative of this Wisconsin team that’s different from years past: “The Badgers can finally score,” said associate head coach Greg Gard, rolling his eyes. That part is true, as Wisconsin averaged almost 74 points per game before Thursday. They move the ball beautifully, and the proof was in their 18 assists on 26 field goals against the Bears. But in true Big Ten fashion, these Badgers can also play defense.

“Credit to them,” said Baylor guard Kenny Chery, who shot just 2-for-8. “They did a great job containing us and making every shot difficult.”

Gasser said Gard — who scouted Baylor — told players there were two keys to beating the Bears: Limit them to just one shot (Baylor entered the game ranking third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com) and get touches in the paint offensively instead of settling for threes. The Badgers did both. Baylor grabbed 11 offensive rebounds but scored just seven second-chance points. Wisconsin took 16 threes (it averages 21 attempts) but only after Frank Kaminsky & Co. had touched the ball at the high post or short corner.

“I thought we did a really good job of attacking,” said junior guard Traevon Jackson, who scored seven points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out five assists.

“We had to work the paint,” Gard added, and the Badgers did just that.

Kaminsky finished with 19 points, shooting an efficient 8-for-11 from the floor. He was crafty and patient inside, and kicked out plenty of times when necessary. More importantly, Kaminsky and Nigel Hays (10 points, six rebounds) pushed Baylor center Isaiah Austin around pretty much wherever they pleased.

Afterward, Drew admitted, “They were better on the inside than I thought they would be.”

Three Baylor players scored in double figures, led by Cory Jefferson’s 15, but those points felt lifeless late in the game. Baylor tried zone, man and the foul-to-stop-the-clock strategy, though that part came a little late, with the Bears down 21 and less than four minutes to play. Nothing worked. This Wisconsin team was precise, crisp and smart. Afterward, it would have been easy to call the Badgers bland, too.

Gasser was just eight years old the last time Wisconsin went to the Final Four, before the Ryan Era began in Madison. Gasser grew up in Port Washington, Wis., just 100 miles from Madison. But he doesn’t remember much about that Badgers run, which ended at the hands of Michigan State, the eventual national champion. Gasser understands the magnitude of the Mecca of college basketball, though, and wants to know what it would be like in person. He spent some time on the phone last week with former Wisconsin guard Mike Kelley who reinforced to Gasser “how awesome it is to play in the Final Four, how it can change your life.” Now he’s just 40 minutes away from finding that out for himself.

Though they executed the game plan almost to perfection -- if you know Coach Ryan, Gasser laughed, you know he’ll find a few things to nitpick -- the Badgers hope an even better performance awaits. And if Wisconsin can secure a trip to Dallas on Saturday night, maybe it will even let loose a little in the locker room.

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