Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Justin Hawkins needed just a second to consider the question.
“He’s definitely the toughest point guard I’ve had to defend,” Hawkins said.
“He” is Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor, and stopping him is the key to defeating the 14th-ranked Badgers on Saturday.
Of course, stopping him may require a small army, a defensive strategy that leaves considerable holes elsewhere on the court. And that’s the challenge when facing one of the nation’s best all-around players.
“He’s always on attack mode,” Hawkins said. “Whether he’s setting up for himself or the rest of his teammates, you’ve just got to lock in and be prepared for a battle.”
Taylor leads the Badgers with 12.4 points per game. He also grabs five rebounds per game and boasts a 4.25 assist-to-turnover ratio, one of the best in the nation.
For a comparison, Taylor and UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield have the same number of assists (51), but Taylor has 10 fewer turnovers.
“He’s a terrific player,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He’s always in control of what’s going on.”
If any team is battle-tested against premier point guards, though, it’s UNLV.
North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall compiled eight assists, but the Rebels contained him to just seven points. Most recently, they saw Wichita State’s Joe Ragland catch fire with eight 3-pointers, a mistake they say they’ve learned from and are prepared to prevent.
They won’t have to wait long to find out if that’s true.
Taylor makes the Badgers dangerous by taking what the defense gives him. If he can penetrate and pass, he takes it. If the opponent leaves him open to shoot, well, he’ll take that too.
It’s all part of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s plan to methodically take apart his opponents.
“His guys play his way, and they’re all on the same page,” Rice said.
Methodical is not music to Mike Moser’s ears.
Wichita State slowed down UNLV, but Wisconsin will make that game look like it was played in fast forward.
According to kenpom.com, Wisconsin’s adjusted defense is the best in the country (81.8 points per 100 possessions), and it held North Carolina to 20 fewer possessions (58) than did UNLV (78).
“Allowing (opponents) to play slow is what hurts us,” Moser said. “We just have to combat that by getting stops, running out and getting easy buckets in transition.”
That worked just fine Wednesday night against Cal State San Marcos. The Rebels scored 34 points off of 26 turnovers. If they can reach even half that number against the Badgers, who average less than nine turnovers per game, it will be a success.
In last year’s game at the Thomas & Mack Center, Taylor went the scoring route, pouring in 19 points, but overall the Badgers struggled offensively. They shot just 37 percent from the floor and committed 15 turnovers.
The last, and most crucial, turnover was on an inbounds pass with six seconds left that Hawkins stole before getting fouled. Hawkins’ pair of free throws set the final score at 68-65.
“It was a grind-it-out game,” Hawkins said. “It was blow-for-blow. Make sure we take them out of their stuff, they took us out of our stuff. We just had to execute, every possession counted. It just went down to the wire.”
Last week, Marquette snapped Wisconsin’s 23-game home-court winning streak with a 61-54 victory. In the loss, Taylor committed five turnovers and the team shot just 32 percent from the floor.
After their game Wednesday, Rice said he hadn’t yet seen the Marquette tape. But by now he’s surely reviewed both the film of that game and last year’s nail-biting victory.
“We’ve had a number of teams who have played a little bit slower on their offensive end, very disciplined teams,” Rice said. "We need to learn from those games and just understand we need to be really patient and disciplined on the defensive end. We’ll try to force tempo, but we need to be patient.”
The blueprint is there: Frustrate Taylor and the rest of the Badgers will follow. Hawkins is the best tool to execute that plan. It’s up to the Rebels to follow.