The Badgers were dealt a rough hand on Selection Sunday, drawing an invite as an 8-seed that left many fans clamoring for justice. While rival Minnesota received a 5-seed, whom the Badgers went 2-0 against and beat by 17 just last week, a slumping Maryland squad received a 6-seed, despite losing to Wisconsin, losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and having an absurdly easy non-conference schedule.
Nonetheless, a path to the Sweet Sixteen still exists for the Badgers. Although it will be much more difficult that many would have liked, it should not be a problem if the Badgers are able to play to their potential. Let’s look at the Badgers’ possible opponents in the first two rounds of tournament play.
Thursday: Virginia Tech (9)
Led by former Marquette head coach Buzz Williams, the Hokies have earned their first tournament bid since 2007. Much like Coach Williams’ Marquette teams of the past, the Hokies play an up-tempo style led by senior Seth Allen and sophomore Ahmed Hill. Both are high-level three point shooters, with Allen connecting on 45% of attempts and Hill on 38%. In fact, three-point shooting is a recurring theme for this Virginia Tech squad, as five players average at least one three point make per game. As a whole, the team shoots over 40% from three-point land, which does not bode well for Wisconsin, as they rank 307th in the nation in three-point field goal defense (37.7%).
There are two areas that the Badgers possess significant advantages: postseason experience and interior offense/defense. Unlike Virginia Tech, the Badgers are used to playing well into March. This year’s crop of seniors has been through two trips to the Final Four and an exciting Sweet Sixteen run. These guys know what to expect, and will certainly be playing with a chip on their shoulder after their unexpectedly low seeding.
The second advantage, interior offense and defense, could be what ultimately gives the Badgers a leg up in this matchup. Few teams can match up and defend the inside prowess of Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ; it is just a matter of getting those two going for Badgers. Virginia Tech is a small team, with 6 foot 7 inch forward Zach LeDay being their tallest player on the court most of the time. This should allow the Badgers to control the glass, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Should they limit Virginia Tech’s second chances on the defensive side and generate some of their own on offense, it will be a good sign for the Badgers.
Saturday: Villanova (1) or Winner of Mount St. Mary’s (16) and New Orleans (16)
If the Badgers win on Thursday, they will almost certainly face the defending champion Villanova Wildcats on Saturday, barring an improbable upset by Mount St. Mary’s or New Orleans. Given that, I will focus only on Villanova for the time being.
Villanova has been considered a national championship favorite for the entire year. They boast a 31-3 record coming out of the Big East, and have capable players up and down the roster. They are led by senior guard Josh Hart and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson, both of whom were integral starters on last year’s championship team.
The Wildcats certainly are more talent-laden in the backcourt than the Badgers. Josh Hart averages 18.9 points per game while shooting 51% from the field and 41% from three-point territory. Brunson plays the Robin to Hart’s Batman, as he scores 14.8 points per game on 54% shooting from the field and 40% from three. They will both be tough matchups for the Badgers to guard, and it will be interesting to see which one the Badgers place Zak Showalter on.
Additionally, Villanova houses as much depth as any team in the nation. Seven players average over 20 minutes per game. This becomes very important come tournament time when both teams would be playing their second game in three days. The Wildcats are a superior offensive team and back it up with elite defense, as they rank 17th in the country in points allowed.
Again, the Badgers advantage will come with their size in the interior. Villanova’s one glaring weakness is their lack of a big man comparable to Ethan Happ. I believe the Badgers match up really well with Villanova on defense, and an upset is certainly in the picture. Villanova had trouble with Marquette, losing to them at the Bradley Center, and lost two times to Butler as well. Villanova has few weak points, but if the Badgers can find a way to get Brunson and Hart out of rhythm, the Badgers could pull a shocking upset on the first weekend of the tournament.