December 22, 2008

James and Pittman will provide test for UW

MADISON, Wis. - A season ago, the Wisconsin men's basketball team used its thrilling win at Texas as a springboard for the rest of the season. Come Tuesday night, the Badgers will welcome in the top-10 ranked Longhorns who will look to return the favor.

Just a day before UW's first "big" home game, assistant coach Greg Gard addressed a few reporters. The follow is a transcript of that interview:

Last season, Wisconsin held a somewhat sizeable height advantage. This year, Texas has a bit of a height advantage. How much does that help them?

Gard: Well, I think Dexter Pittman (who stands 6-foot-10) is their most improved player, just on film. He's obviously in better shape, maybe he it hasn't equated to the minutes he'll be getting eventually, but I think he's made the biggest difference. Obviously Gary Johnson (6-foot-6) has helped him, but they've had players like him in the past. Obviously Damion James did a lot of that same type of stuff, but they haven't had a guy like Pittman. I think he's their most improved and when he's on and he's clicking and you get him the ball, he's a load.

Has A.J. Abrams been playing point for them?

Gard: Well, they're playing Justin Mason more at the point to start with, but Abrams will go play there too if they need to at certain times. The ball definitely touches his hands a lot, pretty much every time down the floor. His range hasn't decreased any in terms of what he's been able to do coming off screens whether it be without the ball or playing off ball screens or things in transition, shooting threes in transition. He's one of the better guards in the country. People knock his size, but he gets it off so quick and with such ease, that distance isn't a factor, time and distance in terms of where the defender is doesn't make a factor. Teams have played him real tight and he just knows how to play, knows how to get shots off. They all look like they're going in even though he hasn't made them all. He's shooting a higher percentage from three than what he is from two. When you get those two combinations, you get a guard like that and a big kid like Pittman inside and then you add a couple of wings or forwards, that team is obviously going to be very good in that league. Obviously, everybody has talked about what they can do nationally and what they can do in March, but they got a lot of pieces and they're obviously a handful.

Will the chase of Abrams be as difficult a chase as you've had this year? I know you haven't had a lot of times where you are chasing one guy around a lot of screens like you will tomorrow night, is he Drew Neitzel like in that regard?

Gard: Well, yeah, he probably gets it off quicker than Neitzel and moves around screens better than Neitzel and can make more plays around the ball than Neitzel can or Neitzel did. It's not just chasing him off screens either because he'll make plays just with the ball in his hands or after the catch. So it's not about, obviously if he can catch it and get it off, he does that exceptionally, but that's not the only part of his game. You take that away from him, he can put it on the floor or he'll shoot it in transition. Like I said there's really not a point from the time he gets off the bus tomorrow night, we got to know where he's at. You cannot relax on him for one second or its gone. Like I said, most of the time it's been good.

Three or four guys maybe will be guarding him throughout?

Gard: It's probably just trying to find out who can handle him the best and who can adjust the best and trying to keep our guys fresh as well. So I don't know if we go in saying we're going to use X number of guys and if that isn't working, we'll try to go to someone else. If somebody is working well on him, then we'll try to stick to it as much as possible. I don't think you can guard him with just one guy just from a fatigue standpoint. He comes off so much every time off to every time down the floor. But he's not the only guy they've got. He doesn't score very much Saturday, Michigan State did a pretty good job on him, but they still, outside of giving up a couple threes at the end, were in control that game. Johnson hit some big shots for them, James hit some shots early and I think Pittman, like I said before is a load and probably somebody that doesn't get enough credit is Mason. Just from what he's doing, his assist to turnover ratio is extremely high. He's found his role, probably one of the best defensive players in that league if not the best defensive guard in that league. He knows what his role is, to shut down whoever he's assigned to and to make sure the other four guys on the floor get their touches. When it's time for him to attack, he's attacked. He hasn't shot the three exceptionally well, but he's been opportunistic because he doesn't have to. He has other guys that can do it and his role is not a three-point shooter on that team. It's run that team, find open teammates and guard the other end.

What about on the other end of the floor? They've held some teams to some pretty low shooting percentages.

Gard: They're quick, they're athletic on the perimeter and they're long. When you get Mason at 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 at the point, Abrams, 5-10, 5-11, but then after that it's 6-7, 6-7, 6-10, 6-10 and all move very well, all have very good feet. Even Pittman at 300 pounds or whatever he's at right now, his feet for a guy that size are exceptional. That's probably the guy I've been most impressed with in terms of how he's gone from last year to this year. Just footwork, balance, right spot, right time, plays with a ferociousness that I don't know if we've seen a big guy in a while that can do the things he's done.

Just looking at them, they've done a lot of damage in the first half jumping on teams right away. How do you combat that and how important is it for you guys to jump on them right away?

Gard: Well the key is just to stay true to what you do, not get out of your identity. I think that's the teams that have been able to hang with them, have done that, to be able to stay within what they do. Michigan State maybe didn't get off to a great start, it was kind of like both team's were trying to find each other and sparring for a while, but you have to maximize, like you do with any other opponent, you have to maximize each possession. You can't have a lot of turnovers, you can't have a lot of bad shots because it gives them too many opportunities. You can't have bad trips consistently and they've been able to put some heat on people and get some things going in transition. Some team's they've jumped on, Texas State they jumped on right away 10-0 and then Texas State was able to bounce back. But they gave up a few things in transition, some bad shots at times, some turnovers that lead…Bad shots or turnovers just start their fast break. You might as well just flip it to them and say, 'here, let's race down the floor.' So we need to minimize those things and I think we did a pretty good job of that down there last year controlling and stayed true to our identity and we were able to hang around.

How much has Trevon Hughes' shot selection improved this year?

Gard: It's gotten better. I don't think it's where it needs to be yet, but it's definitely gotten better. I think we find fewer and fewer instances on tape where we say, no this wasn't good, or look what happens as a result of this shot. It still jumps out because it's not the norm for how we try to play, but he understands and he's done a much better job of being selective on when to shoot and the type of shot. It's not so much when, it's the type of shot and he's getting better and better understanding of what we want and what plays into giving this team a chance at being successful.

Is it partially maturity?

Gard: It is, that's a huge thing. Just understanding how to control a game, how to run a game. From a point guard position, that doesn't always involve shooting the ball every time down the floor. There are other facets of the game that he can control so well that won't show in the box score and at times he's been brilliant at it. Green Bay, he was terrific at it, very efficient. Then there are other times where we got work to do yet.

You talked about being true to yourself as a team. In terms of your veteran guys, is that where they could really help you in a game like this?

Gard: Well, I think that anytime you face really any opponent, we tried to do the same thing against Long Beach State, UCONN, Marquette, all the way down the list. You always try to play true to what you practice and how you practice. When you deviate from that, that's when you get yourself in trouble. No matter the opponent, you still have to stay true to what we do. Take care of the ball, make sure we touch the post whether it's with the pass or with the dribble, get good shots and then guard like heck on the other end. Those things won't change, those are the pillars that we've tried to put in place since we've been here. It's something you're always trying to fine tune. It's never at the point where you are satisfied with it, or never to the point where it's a finished product. You're always having new guys that need to adjust to that, understanding what it takes, how efficient you have to be. You can't turn it into an open gym game. It's a lot different, especially for young guys. They have to adjust to that because a lot of times in high school and AAU, a lot of times it turns into that. Okay, I'm going to score and then the other team is going to go down and score. It's back and forth. The value of each possession, both offensively and defensively, isn't understood to its fullest extent until they get to the college level. I don't think we're the only program that does it, it's just a matter of the guys going through it right now.

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