No NCAA tournament in 2020? The State Journal has you covered. Over the course of two-plus weeks, we’re looking back at one UW game per round. Today, it’s the Badgers’ 61-48 win over LSU in the 2000 Sweet 16.
As University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Dick Bennett was wrapping up his pre-Sweet 16 news conference, two of his players were patiently waiting in a nearby hallway.
But Andy Kowske and Mike Kelley weren’t alone. Seated across from them in the holding area were the two best players on the team the Badgers would be facing the following day at The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
LSU’s Stromile Swift and Jabari Smith wouldn’t even make eye contact with Kowske and Kelley, and the awkward silence was getting to the two Badgers. The situation only got more uncomfortable when the UW players tried to engage the Tigers in some small talk.
There was no response.
“I think looking back,” Kelley said this week, “that was probably an indicator of where they saw in us vs. them at that moment.”
Kowske added: “We were kind of surprised. No one had ever done that before. Everyone’s pretty nice to each other, but those guys were really confident and had no interest in even having a conversation before the game.”
The following day, the Tigers would be speechless for a different reason.
The Badgers’ magical run to the 2000 Final Four as a No. 8 seed was the greatest achievement in Bennett’s legendary coaching career. Twenty years later, that team is remembered for helping a starving fan base believe the program could reach college basketball’s biggest stage.
The 61-48 victory over LSU was UW’s defensive masterpiece of that march to the national semifinals, a suffocating performance that humbled the cocky Tigers.
“I think they were of the mind-set they were going to walk on the floor and take care of business,” said Jon Bryant, a senior guard on that team. “They hadn’t probably seen something like us in their regular season. Just a very tough defensive type of team.”
UW entered the game as heavy underdogs, just as it had five days earlier against top-seeded Arizona. A shocking, 66-59 win over the Wildcats wasn’t enough to convince some that Bennett’s team should be taken seriously.
Among the naysayers was James Jones, a sports writer for The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. The State Journal ran a column written by Jones in the days leading up to the UW-LSU game.
“The Badgers don't have what it takes to defeat the fourth-seeded Tigers,” Jones wrote.
“Center Jabari Smith and forward Stromile Swift would run circles around Wisconsin’s slow and dull attack. The Badgers are so boring that they can cure insomnia.”
After dissing Kelley and Kowske prior to the news conference, Smith bragged about the tag team he formed with Swift. “Show me two big guys on the same team that can do all the things we do,” he said.
UW’s game plan was to send an extra big man at Smith and Swift whenever they got the ball in the low post. Kowske, Mark Vershaw, Maurice Linton and Charlie Wills were relentless with those double teams, and LSU never made any adjustments.
The Tigers finished with 23 turnovers, with six players committing at least three apiece.
“I think us doing that effectively speaks to how well we worked together as a team because when the other post player goes and traps the other post, the other three players are essentially switching to a quick zone,” Kowske said. “And then if they pass out of the post, you have to switch back quickly to a man-to-man. You really have to be in sync with each other when you do that. That was our strength was that we worked together as a team.”
The Badgers took control of the game with a 25-4 run that stretched over both halves.
Over the course of 18 possessions during a stretch that lasted over 12 minutes, LSU had two field goals and 11 turnovers. The Tigers turned the ball over on six consecutive possessions at one point late in the first half and reached halftime with as many points (14) as they had turnovers.
“When the other team starts to argue with each other, when they start chirping at each other about how they’re playing or passing the ball or just getting on each other about their offensive performance,” Bryant said, “that was about the time that we as players could kind of feel like we’ve got these guys where we want them.”
Bryant finished with a game-high 16 points, the only UW player to reach double figures. He made three 3-pointers, part of a stretch in which he went 18 of 36 from beyond the arc in the Badgers’ four wins that tournament.
But UW got contributions from all over the place, with 11 players scoring at least two points.
The real star, however, was Bennett’s defense. Not only did it shut down LSU that night, it contained the man-handling play-by-play duties for CBS. With no high-flying dunks or buzzer-beating shuts to make him scream, a 32-year-old Gus Johnson was noticeably subdued.
Late in the game, Johnson tried to set up his partner, analyst Dan Bonner, to preview the Elite Eight matchup between UW and Purdue that would take place two days later. Behind five 3-pointers from Bryant and 14 points from Kowske, the Badgers went on to record a 64-60 win over Gene Keady and the Boilermakers.
Bonner, for his part, didn’t want to look ahead when prompted by Johnson. He was too impressed by what Bennett’s Badgers were doing to LSU.
“Gus, I tell you, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a defensive effort like this (one) tonight,” he said. “The only word I can use to describe it is unbelievable.”
UW 61, LSU 48
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