By CHRIS JENKINS
the associated press - Published: March 21, 2012
MILWAUKEE — First Syracuse lost center Fab Melo for the NCAA tournament because of an academic issue. Then the Orange barely hung on to beat No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville in the first round.
There might never be a truly good time to run into a top-seeded, two-loss team — but if there was, this might be it.
Just don’t try selling that line of thinking to anybody at Wisconsin.
Going into Thursday’s regional semifinal game in Boston, the Badgers are confident they have a chance but don’t necessarily see Syracuse as vulnerable without their big man.
“I guess I can’t really say what the difference is without Fab Melo just because I haven’t seen him (play) a ton, but they’re still obviously a really talented team,” guard Jordan Taylor said. “I don’t know how many games he missed this year, but they only lost two. They have a lot of good players over there. I know that. They’re probably missing him but they’ve got plenty of guys.”
And regardless of who might be missing from Syracuse’s lineup, Taylor knows Wisconsin will widely be regarded as the underdog.
“I feel like that’s how it is every game,” Taylor said. “I mean, if you were to watch SportsCenter, it seems like every game, whether we’re playing Montana or Syracuse, is always they’re better than us or someone’s better than us. So it’s just, for us, we’re just trying to go out and stick to the things we do well and not really get caught up in that.”
Wisconsin is wary of Rakeem Christmas, who has stepped in at center.
“I don’t know if there’s much difference at all,” Badgers assistant Gary Close said. “The two guys that come in, Christmas and (Baye) Keita, are a lot like Fab. They’re long and athletic and they’ve got the responsibility of covering the basket — and they do it well. I don’t think from a defensive standpoint there’s a whole lot of difference in what they’re doing.”
Wisconsin swingman Rob Wilson isn’t expecting any sort of drop-off.
“Personally, I don’t buy into it, because it’s just one less player they have,” Wilson said. “They’ve still got guys who can off the bench and contribute. They’ve still got a good, athletic big guy down there in Christmas.”
Wisconsin beat Montana in their tournament opener — holding the Grizzlies to 49 points — then edged Vanderbilt on Saturday to advance to the second weekend of the tournament for the second year in a row.
Not bad for a team that didn’t necessarily appear to be tournament-bound after a 1-3 start in the Big Ten.
“(Fans) are really pulling for this team because of the fact that they kind of say, `We didn’t think you were that good,”’ Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “Oh, OK, there’s some days at practice I told them that, too, but then pointed out how you can get better. ... This team has come a long way. I’m really proud of them.”
Now Taylor sees Wisconsin as a program that can take the next step.
“We’ve made steps in the right direction, but definitely, we have to take advantage of opportunities like this,” Taylor said. “We have a great opportunity to go and play against a really good team and take that next step as individuals, as teammates. As a program, we have to start taking advantage of opportunities when we get them.”
And while the Badgers are best known for their defense, Taylor likes the way they’ve been playing on offense in the tournament.
“Like I’ve been saying all year long, we’ve been saying all year long, we’ve got a lot of guys who can fill it up,” Taylor said. “When you have a lot of guys playing confident, playing aggressive, it’s making the other team pick their poison. You talk about Syracuse and Vanderbilt and all the scorers they have, but we’ve got guys who can put it in the hole, too.”
Taylor knows Wisconsin will be challenged by Syracuse’s zone.
“They force people where they want them to go,” Taylor said. “I think when you kind of back down from that and go back into a shell and try to not really take stuff, I think that’s when they kind of impose their will on teams and they get their way. You have to stay aggressive and just trying to keep attacking them. Going into the teeth of that zone, you can’t be nervous at all. It’s the Sweet 16 now, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. You’ve got to go in there and just be aggressive.”
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