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Saturday, May 18, 2024
Wisconsin Badgers vs Rutgers Scarlet Knights 03.07.24
Badgers Claw Their Way to Victory Over Scarlet Knights in men's basketball

Column: Badger basketball is not completely doomed in March Madness. Here’s why.

If you’re a Badger, don’t be a traitor.

The No. 5 seed Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team (22-13) are set to open against No. 12 seededJames Madison Dukes (31-3) on Friday in Brooklyn, New York in the first round of the NCAA March Madness Tournament. 

The Dukes haven’t lost since Jan. 27 and are riding a 13-game win streak. They also recently won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship after finishing second in the regular season at 15-3, just a game behind Appalachian State.

In one of their best wins of the season, the Dukes held Michigan State to 1-of-20 shooting from the three-point line and 26-of-72 overall from the field. After a program-defining win in East Lansing and a hot conference season, the Dukes went undefeated in the Sun Belt Tournament, winning all three of their games. They punched their ticket to March Madness with a resounding 91-71 defeat of Arkansas State. 

James Madison enters the court for the first time in 11 seasons riding a 13-game winning streak. 

This will be the first time the Badgers face the Dukes in men’s basketball, and while the majority of the public is betting on the Dukes, the Badgers were correctly seeded and have the necessary keys to win.

Context matters

The largest reason why the Badgers aren’t doomed is the mere fact the teams the Dukes have played against aren’t very good. James Madison’s strength of schedule sits at No. 293 in the nation, according to KenPom.

The Sun Belt Conference only had two top-100 teams in Division I basketball this season, which were James Madison (59) and Appalachian State (79). The rest fell between the 130-200 range. As much as James Madison’s win over now 9-seeded Michigan State was decent, they then lost to Southern Mississippi and Appalachian State twice later in the season.

The Badgers’ momentum will keep their ball rolling 

Meanwhile, the Badgers had a hot start to the season, peaking at No. 6 in the AP poll after starting conference play 8-1. Wisconsin then fell out of the polls after losing four straight in February, three of which were on the road. They finished the month just 2-6. 

After turning the page on a tumultuous February, Wisconsin point guard Chucky Hepburn put up 22 points and overpowered Purdue guard Braden Smith in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Coupled with Badger guard AJ Storr, they led a 76-75 victory over the top-seeded Boilermakers. 

Without a doubt, the Badgers are on fire, and they’re bound to keep getting hotter.

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Wisconsin will have to up their offensive to survive

The Dukes’ offensive output comes from forward Terrence Edwards Jr. He averages 17.4 points and 3.5 assists per game, and he recently won the Sun Belt Conference’s player of the year award. Without Edwards, the Dukes wouldn’t have completed an upset win at Michigan State as he put up 24 points in the win. 

James Madison has the nation’s second-best 3-point defense, holding opponents to 28.6% from behind the 3-point line. This season, Wisconsin shot 30.8% from 3 in losses and 37.3% from behind the 3-point line in wins. That’s where it could get tricky for the Badgers. 

Wisconsin will have to dominate possession as the Dukes try to pick their pockets. JMU’s 12.2% steal rate, according to KenPom, is 12th best in Division I. However, Wisconsin allows steals on just 7.2% of its possessions, ranking 13th in the nation.

At the end of the day, the Dukes are good offensively, ranking No. 56 in KenPom. But they average 36.4% shooting on 3-pointers per game and have a turnover rate of 10.8 per game compared to the Badgers’ 9.8, making the turnover category an easy spot for the Badgers to conquer.

With the might of Storr, Hepburn and Max Klesmit, the Badgers will triumph on the court. 

Recently, Hepburn is averaging 17.3 points, 5.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2 steals per game. He is also shooting 69% from the field and 50% from three. Meanwhile, Storr averages 22.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game during the Big Ten Tournament. 

Based on their harder schedule and stronger defense, all signs point toward taking Greg Gard and the Badgers in your bracket this Friday.

If you’re a Badger, don’t be a traitor. 

Special pages editor Annika Bereny contributed to this report. 

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Ava Menkes

Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.

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