March Madness 2016

NCAA Tournament Preview: A roundtable discussion on Wisconsin's tournament hopes

Greg Gard's Wisconsin squad is one of the toughest teams to peg down in the NCAA Tournament.

Image By: Jessi Schoville

The Daily Cardinal sports staff takes a look at five pressing questions leading into Wisconsin’s first-round matchup with Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament.

Is Wisconsin over-seeded, under-seeded, or properly seeded and why?

Jake Nisse: With wins over ranked teams Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana during the regular season, a No. 7 seed for Wisconsin seemed feasible, and bracketologists such as Joe Lunardi pegged the Badgers for just that on Selection Sunday. However, with Maryland and Iowa getting No. 5 and No. 7 seeds, respectively (as well as Purdue receiving a No. 5 seed), it seemed the selection committee lacked respect for the Big Ten, making Wisconsin’s seeding surprising and hard to justify. The Badgers certainly have the talent to justify a No.7 seed, but were comfortably behind Iowa in terms of both rankings and performance for much of the season. Based on the harsh seeds Wisconsin’s conference foes received, it can feel fortunate to be seeded in the same ballpark as teams such as Arizona and Texas.

Ethan Levy: After losing to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette early in the season, making the tournament seemed like a long shot for the Badgers, and earning a No. 7 seed seemed nearly impossible. As the season progressed, however, Wisconsin beat teams like Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland, so a seven seed seems appropriate for this improving Badger team. Anything higher would have discounted the bad losses, and anything lower would have discredited the big wins.

Thomas Valtin-Erwin: Seven seems like a reasonable seed based on what this team has gone through this year. They’ve got plenty of impressive wins and plenty of embarrassing losses, and they overachieved a bit over the second half of the season. Their big wins were nominally impressive, sure, but they were plenty inefficient in those wins. The Badgers closed the season fairly shakily against Purdue and Nebraska, but they’ve shown that at their best, they can play with the best.

Ben Pickman: Properly seeded. Being a seven seed in March means the Badgers were ranked between 25th and 28th in the country in the eyes of the tournament selection committee. That is about right for a team that lost to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette early in the season. Wisconsin was in the AP Top 25 only during the opening week of the college basketball season, but has withered back from a woeful start to the cusp of the AP Top 25. That puts them right in the 25-28 region or No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Jake Powers: After a tumultuous season of ups and downs, it almost feels natural that the Badgers settled at the No. 7 seed in the East Regional. Wisconsin’s run in mid-February put it back on the NCAA Tournament map after tough losses under now-retired head coach Bo Ryan and in the early days of Greg Gard’s tenure and, although it’s scuffled recently, it didn’t deserve to fall any lower in the seeding. At least one win in the the Big Ten Tournament would have been nice, but based on where the committee seeded UW, it may not have made a huge impact.

Zach Rastall: A No. 7 seed seems just about right for this Wisconsin team. Their résumé is bogged down by brutal non-conference losses to teams like Western Illinois and Milwaukee, despite the fact that they won 11 of their final 13 regular-season games. The Badgers are certainly playing like a team that is better than a seven seed, and Greg Gard and Co. have orchestrated a remarkable turnaround since January, but you can’t just discount the ugly non-conference portion of their schedule. Wisconsin’s is a rather atypical NCAA Tournament, and a No. 7 seed seems fair.

What team looks to be the biggest potential test for the Badgers in their region?

Jake N.: The Badgers face a number of tough potential challenges in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. Yogi Ferrell has had an outstanding senior season for Indiana, Xavier has lost just five games all year and West Virginia is the sixth-best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom.com. But while the Mountaineers would be a difficult matchup, the Badgers have shown an ability to win in ugly, low-scoring games, as their 68.9 points per game were the fourth-lowest in the Big Ten. A bigger worry should be the Tar Heels of North Carolina, who led the ACC in both scoring and rebounding per game. Without a true defensive enforcer and a startling lack of size, it wouldn’t surprise many to see Brice Johnson bully the Badgers inside and put them in an uncomfortable high-scoring affair.

Ethan: The Badgers’ biggest test in their region is the No. 1 seed, North Carolina. Not only does UNC have four starters that averaged above 10 points, but senior forward Brice Johnson is one of the best players in the nation. Johnson averages a double-double a game and also leads his team in rebounds. Johnson’s presence inside, coupled with the Tar Heels’ offensive depth, makes UNC the biggest potential threat in the East.

Thomas: While North Carolina is a fantastic team and Xavier earned its spot as a No. 2 seed, West Virginia is the best team in the East. The Mountaineers have made a steady climb up both the AP rankings and in my mind, and now they look like one of the best teams in the country. By my estimate, they have a better shot at beating the Badgers than both the Tar Heels and the Musketeers at 80.6 percent. They’ll be a very tough out in the tournament, and they’re a bad matchup for the slower Badgers.

Ben: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” has the potential to be ringing through the Badgers’ ears all throughout the offseason. The West Virginia Mountaineers have a lethal full-court press and a flurry of guard depth that could give Wisconsin a ton of problems. West Virginia turns opponents over on 24.8 percent of possessions, which leads the nation. They are second in steals and turnovers per game as well. WVU has forced 30 or more turnovers in three games this season and has had at least seven steals in all but five games. Additionally, West Virginia leads the country with its bench, averaging almost 34 points per game. Wisconsin’s bench has been highly inconsistent and the Badgers haven’t faced a ton of full-court pressure. Both could mean trouble for UW and send the Badgers home with a misty taste of moonshine, and a teardrop in their eye.

Jake P.: Fresh off an ACC Championship game win over Virginia, North Carolina is primed for yet another deep run in the tournament. The Tar Heels come in to the tournament riding a five-game win streak, and their late-November loss to Northern Iowa feels like a distant relic of the past. The East Regional is shaping up to be one of the toughest segments of the bracket, as Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Xavier are all giants who form a formidable gauntlet.

Zach: Probably West Virginia. The Badgers have shown that, when they’re playing at their best, they can beat some of the best teams in the country. Pittsburgh is no pushover, but if they can get past the Panthers, don’t be surprised if they knock off Xavier to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. If they do that, they’ll likely face a West Virginia team that loves to press, force turnovers and just cause utter chaos in general. This is a Wisconsin squad that turns the ball over far more often than teams in years past, so the Mountaineers aggressive style of play could really cause an issue for the Badgers.

Who is Wisconsin’s X-factor?

Jake N.: He may not be the best or even second-best player on the Wisconsin roster, but Bronson Koenig is inextricably tied to the Badgers’ success. In Wisconsin’s 12 losses this season, the La Crosse, Wis. native shot a putrid 30 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range, but those totals shot up to about 48 and 45 percent, respectively, in the team’s 20 wins. Koenig is the team’s second-highest scorer per game, but for the Badgers to go far in March, he needs to demonstrate a steadiness and consistency that he has sorely lacked for much of the season.

Ethan: If Wisconsin hopes to make a deep run in the postseason, they will need to get a consistent contribution from their bench. Redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Hill, UW’s sixth man, will have to consistently make offensive contributions when junior Bronson Koenig is on the bench. If Hill can come in, not turn the ball over and provide energy off the bench, the Badgers have a much better chance to make a run.

Tommy: Guard play dominates the tournament, and that’s the area the Badgers have been the least consistent. Bronson Koenig is the staple, though he can be a question mark at times. But Zak Showalter is the one who can’t disappear come tourney time. He scored just two points in 35 minutes of play in their shocking loss to Nebraska, and failed to make a single field goal. Showalter has vastly improved his 3-point shooting this season, and they need him to show up if they want to make any noise.

Ben: For the Badgers to be happy with their tournament run in March, they need Ethan Happ to make things happen consistently throughout the tournament. Happ has been a consistent force for the Badgers as they have gone on their late-season run. But in the Badgers’ loss to Nebraska in their one and only Big Ten Tournament game, Happ struggled dealing with Nebraska’s double-teams. Happ had only four first half points and shot a dreadful 2-of-7 from the field. Throw in a flurry of slow decisions leading to turnovers and Happ looked far from dominant on the block. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year has been dominant for the Badgers this season, but if he struggles, so will the Badgers.

Jake P.: While redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ looked infallible for long stretches of the season, he’s tapered off recently and had one of his worst performances of the year Thursday against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wisconsin offense is at its best when it runs through Happ, who has developed a nice repertoire of moves in the paint that increasingly resemble Frank Kaminsky’s signature offensive game. Happ is UW’s only real threat down low, and if he’s off his game, its perimeter scorers will have a very thin margin of error.

Zach: Perhaps no player on the Wisconsin roster has been more key to its turnaround than Ethan Happ. He’s looked far more confident on offense, has finished much more consistently at the basket and is one of the Big Ten’s best defenders. However, teams are double-teaming him almost any time he touches the ball in the post, which he’s had difficulties handling at times. The Badgers are at their best when they play inside-out, so they need Happ to finish at the rim (no missed bunnies), be aggressive when the opportunity presents itself and make crisp passes to open teammates waiting at the perimeter. If he struggles like he has in some recent games like the loss to Nebraska, Wisconsin might not be able to create enough offense to make it very far in the tournament.

What are the keys to success for the Badgers in the tournament? What changes, if any, will Greg Gard have to make?

Jake N.: The fundamental skill of shot creation will need to be focused on and mastered over the next month for Wisconsin to have success in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers’ swing offense under Greg Gard means the burden of facilitation is distributed more equally than other teams, but it is still damning that the Badgers had the third-least assists per game in the Big Ten this season. Nigel Hayes led the team with a slender three assists per game, and Bronson Koenig has shown he is not a natural creator with only 2.5 per game. Though Zak Showalter has been a steady force in the Badger offense, perhaps Greg Gard should consider sacrificing him for the more dynamic Jordan Hill. The playmaking redshirt sophomore seems well-suited to the point guard position, while Koenig, who has resembled little more than a spot-up shooter at times this season, could seamlessly slot into the shooting guard position. The Badgers would also help their chances immeasurably if they can manage to improve upon their inconsistent free throw shooting and poorly constructed inbounds plays.

Ethan: In order for the Badgers to have success in the tournament, they will have to play inside-out. Junior Nigel Hayes will have to be assertive and make his way to glass. Similarly, redshirt freshman Ethan Happ will need to get a lot of touches in the post. The extra post touches will allow the kick out to a more open 3-point line, where Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter will have to hit their shots.

Thomas: Inside-out play has been the foundation for the Badgers’ success in conference play, and they went away from it a little bit down in their last two games. They need Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes to look for shots down low, and when they feel a double-team, find the open man on the perimeter. Wisconsin has plenty of shooters, but they haven’t gotten open shots of late. When they’re hitting shots, they’re pretty good.

Ben: When Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball back in 1891, free throws were not actually mentioned in the game’s 13 original rules. The closest allusion to foul shots was that if a team commits two consecutive fouls it would be a goal for the opposing team. The Badgers probably wish that was still the rule in college basketball. The Badgers shoot a mere 70 percent from the free-throw line which is 10th in the Big Ten Conference. So often, winners in March are determined by who makes their free throws in late game situations. If the Badgers take advantage of their free points, then they’ll likely go far in the tournament. If they don’t, they’ll get a free trip back to Madison earlier than they would like.

Jake P.: While the Badgers will be counting on Ethan Happ to revert to his prime form, don’t discount the impact Vitto Brown can have on the team as well. He scored 13 of his 16 points against Nebraska in the first half, and he kept Wisconsin afloat for the first 20 minutes of its dismal display. Brown needs to stay involved on a more consistent basis, and it’s on head coach Greg Gard to find a way to get the ball into Brown’s hands.

Zach: As I said before, the Badgers are at their very best when they play inside-out. If Ethan Happ is getting double-teamed in the post—which he almost certainly will—Wisconsin will get its fair share of looks from the perimeter. Quite simply, they have to knock down some shots from deep. That’s not exactly a difficult concept to grasp, but what makes the Badgers successful isn’t all that complex. If UW can hit some 3-pointers and force its opponent to guard more closely at the perimeter, it opens up more opportunities for Happ and Nigel Hayes in the post.

How far are you expecting this team to go?

Jake N.: Wisconsin are a flawed and enigmatic bunch, but one with a fair amount of talent, and some tournament experience as well. Therefore, it is equally possible to imagine a deep tournament run as it is to envision a first-round exit. What will probably happen is something in between: the Badgers should handle Pitt and could certainly usurp Xavier, but will find it hard to make it past teams like West Virginia with their lack of size and depth and sometimes questionable defense. Greg Gard’s team is certainly a respectable squad, but a return to the Final Four shouldn’t be expected of a team not nearly as special as its predecessors.

Ethan: Despite the ability for Wisconsin to pull off unexpected, big wins this season, Wisconsin will not advance past the round of 32. Pittsburgh, UW’s first round matchup, is a very good 10 seed. Still, Wisconsin’s talent should get them past the opening round. In the second round, Wisconsin will meet No. 2 Xavier, which is having a very good season. Not only has Wisconsin had an inconsistent season, they often play inconsistently over the course of a single game. If Wisconsin has an extended letdown during that game, Xavier will be able to capitalize, and ultimately pull out a win.

Thomas: A first-weekend exit looks pretty likely, even for a team with three huge road wins on the year. Pittsburgh is vastly underseeded, and I actually have them as a two-point favorite in the first round. Having North Carolina and West Virginia in the same region is a tough draw as well. Of course, everyone knows that this team is wildly inconsistent and could play like a No. 2 seed at any moment, so how far they’ll actually go is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Ben: In 1958, jazz musician Miles Davis released his studio record Milestones for Columbia Records. Davis’ album has been dubbed as one of best modern-jazz albums of all time, known for its foray of instrumentation and complex trumpet and piano solos. A realistic milestone for the Badgers this tournament will end in defeat against Xavier’s point guard Myles Davis. Davis, a junior, is Xavier’s starting point guard and is big for point guard standards in college basketball. The 6-foot-2, 188-pound guard is the smallest of any Musketeer rotation player. Davis’ size and strength will be somewhat problematic for both guard Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. Trevon Bluiett is the Musketeers’ most talented player, but James Farr is known around college basketball for being one of the best glue guys in the country. Wisconsin should be able to skate by Pittsburgh in the opening round, but will likely fall by the Musketeers’ sword.

Jake P.: I wouldn’t be all that shocked if Pittsburgh pulls off the upset Friday. It’s been through the ringer of the ACC this season and, although it has struggled recently, it has the right combination of inside scoring and strong rebounding that could spell trouble for Wisconsin. The Badgers must find a way to establish a presence down low, otherwise the Panthers could very easily find themselves moving on to the second round of the tournament.

Zach: Quite frankly, deciding what to do with this Wisconsin team is one of the toughest parts of filling out this year’s bracket. Pittsburgh is an extremely tough No. 10 seed, and moving past the Panthers would most likely land them a matchup with a lengthy Xavier squad. Still, the Badgers have shown that they can compete with the best, and my gut instinct is that they have enough magic left to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen, but I say that with only the slightest of confidence.

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