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Monday, November 23, 2009

Maui Invitational: Game 1

Wisconsin's 65-61 opening round victory over Arizona in the Maui Invitational was hard to watch, but watching Keaton Nankivil finish made it worthwhile.

Nankivil was looking plenty aggressive with a couple of dunk attempts gone awry in the second half. But he converted with authority when it counted -- the final two minutes. Even though I'd have traded the aggressiveness of the missed dunks for four points in a heartbeat, those plays set the stage for his strong finish, when Wisconsin absolutely had to have a big man on the attack. The junior is averaging 10 points and 7 boards through three games.

It was great to see the senior point guard seal the deal in the end also. Trevon Hughes seized the moment with his fourth steal -- off a missed free throw -- to regain possession with four seconds left and ensure victory. He paced the Badgers with 24 points and overcame some shaky free throw shooting and questionable shot attempts to make another big play. Even more encouraging was the chemistry he seemed to have with Nankivil in this whistle-fest that is now typical of the tropical early season tourneys. [box score]

On the very same day that a report about biased officiating hit the media, 55 fouls were called in this game. After one half, Wisconsin would probably agree with the researchers findings that referees call more fouls against the team that is leading. Fortunately the calls evened out in the second half. (Amazingly, the Wildcats lost three players to fouls in the end while only Jon Leuer fouled out for the Badgers.)

Last, but not least, freshman Mike Bruesewitz made a huge impact in covering for the decimated front court. Wisconsin had the best player on the court in Hughes, but the toughness that Bruesewitz brought to the table was the second-best thing to happen to the Badgers. He tore up the boards (6), tipped rebounds to others, took two charges and got on the floor for loose balls. I love the way he sets screens. In general, he just got you excited that he's playing this year.

My favorite play of the game was when Hughes picked up a deflected ball, accelerated to get in front of his man and then handed the ball off to Bruiser for a two-handed jam. It was a very smart move by Hughes to get the youngster an easy bucket to reward his hustle and get him involved on both ends of the floor after his rough debut back in Madison last Wednesday.

The second best play of the night for me was when Hughes found himself in a mismatch guarding Arizona's post player, yet stole the entry pass with a clean deflection.

Wisconsin came out with a lot of energy, opening a 13-0 lead, while Arizona lacked direction. But after building the lead UW lost its focus. The Wildcats got back into the game when the Badgers started running too much and taking quick shots. Arizona frosh Derrick Williams owned the paint for the majority of the game, putting both Leuer, Nankivil and even Ryan Evans into foul trouble from the start. His parade to the charity stripe led to a game-high 25 points.

The dark side of this win is that last season's reversal of free throw fortunes continues. Arizona nearly made as many freebies (26) as Wisconsin attempted (29). Even these numbers are skewed because Arizona had to foul in the final minute.

Outside shooting is another concern. Wisconsin needs a third shooter since Nankivil's 3-point shooting has come down to earth this season. Neither Tim Jarmusz nor Jordan Taylor look capable yet. Inside, Jared Berggren still looked out of place. Uncomfortable. Plus, he missed a box out that lead to one of the Wildcats' few first half buckets. Although, with all the bricks being thrown up, Wisconsin really did a great job of rebounding in the first 20 minutes, considering their true bigs were both on the bench.

Wisconsin faces Gonzaga tomorrow night in round two of the tournament.

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