The three South Region teams that will join Wisconsin in San Jose — Oregon, UC-Irvine and Kansas State — all took unique routes to the NCAA Tournament. They could also pose a variety of issues if UW hopes to get to the Sweet Sixteen in Louisville. Here is a brief recap of each team’s season and how they could match up with the Badgers.
For the No. 12-seed Ducks (10-8 Pac-12, 23-12 overall), an NCAA Tournament bid and conference championship seemed all but impossible only three weeks ago. Despite opening the year ranked in the top 20, they suffered a three-game losing streak in mid-February that included defeats against in-state rival Oregon State and a rout at the hands of USC. After a loss to UCLA in which the Ducks had blown a 16-point halftime lead, senior forward Paul White sighed, “This is a tough loss. This will test our character.”
Remarkably, the Ducks have not lost since that game. They won four in a row to close out the regular season to finish fourth in the conference before rattling off four consecutive victories to win the Pac-12 tournament. Along the way, they beat the first, second and third seeds in the conference on consecutive days, culminating in a 20-point victory over the top-seeded Washington Huskies. They thus earned an automatic bid to the tournament and enter as one of the hottest teams in the country.
Much like Wisconsin, March mainstay Oregon returns to the NCAA Tournament after missing last year’s Big Dance. The 2017-2018 campaign finished with their first failure to qualify since 2009. The two teams know one another quite well, having faced off in the Round of 32 in both the 2014 and 2015 tournaments, both UW victories.
Contrary to preseason expectations, the Ducks’ upperclassmen have been the story of the year. Their biggest star, freshman Bol Bol, who averaged 21 points per game before sustaining an injury only nine games into the year, will not partake in the March festivities. They have relied on a balanced attack since Bol has gone down. White, freshman Louis King and junior Payton Pritchard all average double-digits in points. Their size may also be an issue for UW with four starters listed at 6’9” or taller.
Their defense has been stout: they led the Pac-12 in opponent field goal attempts, opponent field goals made, and opponent three-point percentage. Their season mark of 29.4 percent opponent three-point percentage was 11th in the nation. They gave up only 48 points to Washington, the regular-season conference champion, in the Pac-12 championship game — this after holding them to 47 March 9.
For Wisconsin to get past Oregon, they will have to find their shooting touch from outside after failing to do so in their B1G semifinal loss to Michigan State. Role players Charles Thomas and Aleem Ford may have to play significant minutes, as UW will need to counter the Ducks’ size. Some disciplined defense of their own, a hallmark of Wisconsin all year, will also be needed in order to slow down a balanced attack.
This season was a high water mark for a Wildcats team used to playing second fiddle to their rivals in Lawrence. They won their first share of a regular season conference title since 2013, sharing the honors with Texas Tech. Even sweeter, they ended the Jayhawks’ 14-season streak of winning the conference. In the Big 12 tournament, the top-seeded Wildcats beat TCU in the quarterfinals before dropping a close decision to Iowa State.
Much like the Ducks, KSU rode a strong defense to success. They allowed the fewest points per game during conference play, yielding only 59.2 points per game. Their 59.1 mark for the entire season was good enough for fourth in the nation, trailing only Michigan, Texas Tech and Virginia. Senior guard Barry Brown Jr. won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year; he and senior forward Dean Wade, both of whom were named to the All Big 12 first team, provide veteran leadership. On offense, four players averaged double-digits on the year, led by Brown Jr., who scored nearly 15 per game, fifth in the Big 12.
Leaning on their seniors, the Wildcats were able to beat Kansas, Oklahoma (twice), TCU (three times) and Iowa State. Their losses include Marquette, Texas, Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State (twice) and Tulsa.
If they play Wisconsin on Sunday, it would be the first meeting in the NCAA Tournament since the 2011 Round of 32, when they lost to the fourth-seeded Badgers, 70-65, in Tucson.
Kansas State’s opponent on Friday afternoon, the UC-Irvine Anteaters, have little in common with the other schools that constitute their pod in San Jose. They only joined Division I in the 1970s, and play in an arena that holds a little less than 5,000 fans. The Anteaters are dancing for the second time in school history after reaching the round of 32 in 2015 before losing to Louisville.
This year, the Anteaters enjoyed their most successful campaign ever finishing with a 30-5 record (15-1 in conference) and adding an exclamation mark with a 28-point victory over CSU Fullerton in the Big West title game. Other résumé-boosters include wins over two other tournament teams in Montana and Saint Mary’s. In conference play, they finished in the top two in nearly every major statistical category, including scoring defense, opponent field-goal percentage, rebounds, field-goal percentage and blocks.
As is the case for all four teams in this pod in San Jose, UIC relies on their upperclassmen. Seven of their eight leading scorers are either juniors or seniors. Their leading scorer is the aptly named Max Hazzard, a junior guard from nearby Los Angeles, who scored over 12 points per game. Senior Jonathan Galloway made history by becoming the first player to win Big West Defensive Player of the Year in three consecutive seasons, while senior forward Elston Jones took home the honor for Sixth Man of the Year. Depth will not be an issue for this team: nine players averaged over five points per game (in comparison, Wisconsin only had five who did so).
A team that became accustomed to winning this year should have a much tougher time in March. Big West Coach of the Year Russell Turner will have to have a nearly perfect plan to upset the Wildcats and reach the Round of 32 for the first time in school history. The Anteaters will hope to have the support of their fans as they play what could amount to a home game. Campus is about a six-hour drive from the SAP Center in San Jose, California.