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Wisconsin and Vanderbilt hope to take next step

ALBUQUERQUE - In bracketology terms, they cannot be regarded as hot or trendy. Certainly, no one could call them sleepers, considering their history, including their play of the past few weeks.

Yet when the NCAA Tournament field of 68 is pared to a Final Four next weekend, few will murmur in disbelief if Vanderbilt or Wisconsin emerges as the East Regional champion.

As the No. 4 seed and a perennial contender in the Big Ten, coach Bo Ryan’s Badgers have earned respect. How could they not as a school making its 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Fifth-seeded Vanderbilt’s success is of a shorter term. The Commodores are making only their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the last two ending with opening losses to lower-seeded teams, a run that ended on Thursday with a 79-70 win over No. 12 seed Harvard.


Few will argue the Commodores’ credentials this season as they come off their first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 1951, which was achieved with a win over top-ranked Kentucky.

Add the fact that five starters returned from a team that won 48 games the previous two seasons, and has the Nos. 1 and 3 scorers in the SEC in guard John Jenkins (19.8 points per game) and forward Jeffery Taylor (16.3), and the first thought regarding the Commodores might be, why not pick them?

Which is why Saturday night’s meeting at The Pit between Wisconsin and Vanderbilt -with the winner moving to the regional semifinals in Boston next weekend - is intriguing.

Both teams are certainly hungry and talented enough to make it to the Final Four in New Orleans. Both teams took care of business here on Thursday. Wisconsin rolled over Montana, while Vanderbilt ended Harvard’s dream season.

Now the competition is better. Strength will be met with strength Saturday. Experience matches experience, both on the court and on the bench, where Ryan and Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings have been here before.


Ryan has been running the Wisconsin program for 11 years and has guided the Badgers to 20-plus wins for six straight seasons, and top-four finishes in the conference for 11 straight seasons, the longest string of success in the Big Ten in 80 years. Stallings has been at Vanderbilt for 13 seasons and has averaged 20 wins.

Ryan concedes this is far from his best team. “I’m so happy for our guys because this is a gritty group,’’ he said.

Stallings might have his best team, including a star in Jenkins who was sensational against Harvard with 27 points.

Taylor, a senior, says this could be the year Vanderbilt finally maximizes its potential.

“We’ve had a lot of obstacles and hurdles we’ve had to clear throughout our time here at Vanderbilt,’’ said Taylor, who scored 15 points against Harvard.

Senior guard Brad Tinsley talked of simply making it past the first tournament game as a landmark event.

“It really means a lot for our senior class to be our last time in the NCAA Tournament,’’ said Tinsley, who along with Jenkins gives Vanderbilt a veteran backcourt that can match the skills of Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Josh Gasser, who were instrumental in taking Montana apart. “Just to get that monkey off our back and win a close game in the first round. It just means a lot to us old guys, the coaching staff, and the program.’’


Wisconsin’s successes and failures have been more understated. The Badgers have been around, but seldom have played a starring role. Unlike Vanderbilt, they have been rock-solid in their opening tournament games. The win over Montana was their sixth consecutive opening-game victory, and they have been to the Sweet 16 four times since 2003. But their last visit to the Final Four was in 2000.

The Badgers feel they are ready to reach the next level.

“I think we’re extremely hungry. We got a little taste of it last year, but we always want more,’’ said junior forward Mike Bruesewitz, referring to the loss to Butler in the 2011 Southeast Regional semifinals. “That’s kind of our motto. It’s kind of how everybody in our locker room is. We always want more. We always want better. We challenge each other every day and try to get better every day. I think last year was a good treat, but we want more.’’

Vanderbilt feels the same way, especially after an opening win.

“We can kind of get past that aura of us losing in the first round and just kind of concentrate on Wisconsin and playing a tough game against them,’’ said Tinsley. “There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of joy out of our locker room. It was just great for our guys and our program.’’

Now both teams want to carry that feeling to Boston.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at