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December 15, 2006

Game of the Week: Pittsburgh vs. Wisconsin

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No top-10 teams may be more similar than the two that are schedule to meet Saturday afternoon.

No. 2 Pittsburgh (10-0) and No. 7 Wisconsin (10-1) are both built around one player - the Panthers around center Aaron Gray and the Badgers around small forward Alando Tucker. Each player is far and away the main offensive option on the squad.

Both stars are also surrounded by a well-balanced and deep supporting cast. Eight other Panthers and six other Badgers have scored in double figures at least once this season.

The Panthers and Badgers have plenty of role players, from defensive specialists to space eaters to zone busters.

But there is one glaring difference. Only one has proven worthy of its high ranking.

The Badgers beat in-state rival and No. 17-ranked Marquette 70-66 last week.

The Panthers haven't played a ranked team yet. They had to come from behind to escape with a 70-67 win over a 6-4 Buffalo team in their last game.

Does the Big East favorite really belong among the nation's elite teams? This matchup should give us a legitimate answer. We break down all the head-to-head battles and select who has the edge:

Rivals.com Game of the Week: No. 2 Pittsburgh (10-0) at No. 7 Wisconsin (10-1)
Aaron Gray vs. Jason Chappell
No big man is playing better than the massive Gray (16.8 ppg), who has made more strides since winning the Big East's Most Improved Player award last season. The 7-foot, 270-pounder has already racked up seven double-doubles. He isn't very athletic and lacks quickness, but he does a great job getting position near the basket and is very tough to move from the blocks. Chappell (6-10, 245) is one of the Badgers' many role players. The senior doesn't shoot the ball much, but he handles the ball well for someone his size and possesses a high basketball I.Q. Rarely will you see Chappell defending Gray one-on-one. The Badgers will look to double team the Panthers star and will probably match him up more with their best low-post defender, Greg Stiemsma (6-11, 265).
Edge: Pittsburgh.
Levon Kendall vs. Brian Butch
When Butch (6-11, 240) gets going offensively, the Badgers are very tough to stop. The former McDonald's All-American gives opponents a third scoring threat to worry about when his mid-range jumpers are falling. The Panthers, unlike guard-heavy Marquette, play a style and tempo that should help Butch (9.6 ppg). He does much better in a slower, halfcourt game where he can better utilize his size and skill set. Kendall (6-10, 225) is similar to Butch, although he has been stuck in a shooting slump. He is making just 38 percent (18-of-47) of his field-goal attempts. But the Canadian senior is such a good passer and defender that he'll stay on the court even when he's struggling to score.
Edge: Wisconsin.
Mike Cook vs. Alando Tucker
This will be Cook's toughest defensive assignment so far - and possibly all season. Tucker (6-6, 210) possesses great athleticism, strength and has a tremendous mid-range game. The Rivals.com preseason All-American doesn't take games off either, having scored in double figures in 32 of his last 33 contests (including all 11 this season). He also tends to play better in the bigger games, scoring 28 against Marquette and 22 more in a win over Florida State. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Cook (11.6 ppg) should give Tucker (20.2 ppg) some problems on the defensive end. Better suited for the perimeter, the East Carolina transfer has the quickness to create his own shot or scoring opportunities for others off the dribble.
Edge: Wisconsin.
Antonio Graves vs. Michael Flowers
Both of these veteran shooting guards are versatile and savvy. Graves (6-3, 190) is more of a scorer, most dangerous when he gets in a rhythm from beyond the arc. Flowers' biggest strength comes on defense, where he leads the team with 1.8 steals a game. Both are good decision-makers and ballhandlers as well, with assist-to-turnover ratios better than 2-to-1. It's easy to envision nobody really grabbing an edge in this matchup, but Flowers' quickness and his ability not to give Graves the space needed to shoot could give the Badgers a little extra lift.
Edge: Wisconsin.
Levance Fields vs. Kammron Taylor
This will be a total clash of styles. The diminutive Fields (5-10, 195) is an offensive catalyst, looking primarily to penetrate and dish. He's averaging 7.1 points and 5.4 assists a game. Taylor (6-2, 175) doesn't play much like a traditional point guard. The wiry senior owns a scorers' mentality, often creating his shot off the dribble. He has shown a knack for making tough shots. He's averaging 11.8 ppg, but has racked up as many turnovers (19) as assists (19). Taylor has also developed a reputation for not being aggressive enough on defense, which could prove costly here. Stopping Fields from getting inside the arc should be a key part of the Badgers' game plan.
Edge: Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh bench vs. Wisconsin bench
Ronald Ramon (pictured) vs. Greg Stiemsma (pictured)
These are two of the best benches in the nation. Each features plenty of depth and multiple players who would be starting for most major programs. Three reserves are part of Pitt's rotation, and each plays significant minutes. Guards Ronald Ramon (pictured), Tyrell Biggs (5.1 ppg) and Keith Benjamin (4.9 ppg) are the Panthers' top reserves. Ramon (7.9 ppg) is their best long-range shooter. He has made more than 47 percent (21 of 44) of his 3-point attempts. The Panthers may not have many options when it comes to resting Gray or Kendall though. Athletic power forward Sam Young has been playing sparingly since developing tendinitis in his knee last month. Wisconsin is loaded with frontcourt pieces - from 6-7 forwards Marcus Landry (4.4 ppg) and Joe Krabbenhoft (5.7 rpg) to the gigantic Stiemsma. The backcourt is where they are thin. Freshman Jason Bohannon (5.0 ppg) is the only reserve guard who is playing regular minutes.
Edge: Pittsburgh.
Coaching Matchup
Few coaches can do more with less talent than Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, whose 505-153 (76.7 winning percentage) overall coaching record is the best among all Division I coaches with at least 20 years of experience. The Badgers won a share of the Big Ten title in his first season, won it outright in his second and won the conference tournament the following year. The team Ryan has now has more talent than any of those previous squads. Dixon is only entering his fourth year as a head coach, but he is already being talked about as one of the best young coaches in the game. He went 76-22 in his first three seasons at Pitt, the best start of any coach in school history. Don't expect many adjustments to X's and O's or strategy. Ryan and Dixon are both defensive-minded coaches whose teams pride themselves on being tougher than their opponents.
Edge: Wisconsin.

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