This is the season for the Wisconsin Badgers. They have had lofty expectations since before the season even started as evidenced by their #3 preseason ranking. Frank Kaminsky was a pre-season All-American and every publication had them running away with the Big Ten Title. Kaminsky has a great supporting cast around him, including future pro Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Traevon Jackson. Most of the main characters from 2014's Final Four run were returning. And they've lived up to those expectations.
How They Got There
Wisconsin breezed through conference play, only dropping two games, at Rutgers with an injury depleted team and at Maryland. Traevon Jackson has been injured since mid January, but he will return for the Sweet 16 game against the North Carolina Tar Heels. In the second round the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers gave Wisconsin little trouble, and Wisconsin won convincingly with an 86-72 victory. Kaminsky had an easy double double with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Sam Dekker had a big game with 20 points, and Nigel Hayes almost had a double-double of his own with 15 points and 8 rebounds. The win set up a third round game against familiar foe, #8 seeded Oregon Ducks.
Wisconsin had beaten the Ducks in the same round of the NCAA tournament last season, and they met once again in the round of 32 this past Sunday. Oregon's Joseph Young gave Wisconsin trouble all night, going for 30 points on 25 shots. He scored 14 points in the final 10 minutes to keep Oregon in it, and the Badgers went to the break up 3, 31-28. Oregon kept it tight for the first 19 minutes of the second half, but Wisconsin ended up be too much for Oregon's one-dimensional offense. Wisconsin spread the wealth around during the game, something that's made them so hard to defend throughout the season. You never know who is going to hurt you, aside from Kaminsky who has scored double figures in all but 1 game this season. Against Oregon, Kaminsky, Dekker, Hayes, and Koenig all scored in double figures. Bronson Koenig has really elevated his game in conference play while filling in for the injured Jackson. He's added yet another threat to a team that is not lacking of talent.
The Path to Indy
Wisconsin will have to face an always good North Carolina team that is in their 31st Sweet 16. North Carolina narrowly escaped a big upset to the hands of Ivy League champ Harvard, and then won going away against Arkansas. They will face each other in the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday at 7:47 on TBS with a chance to advance to the regional championship game. North Carolina earned themselves the #4 seed in the West region by finishing 5th in the stacked ACC. They face a roadblock against Wisconsin and may be without starting power forward Kennedy Meeks, who suffered a left knee injury in the win against Arkansas. Meeks is the third leading scorer for the Tar Heels at 11.6 PPG and he is 2nd on the team in rebounds at 7.4 a game. He is also the team's leading shot blocker, swatting 1.3 shots a game. North Carolina has a lot to overcome in the game against Wisconsin, and it should help in Wisconsin's bid for the Elite 8.
If Wisconsin get past UNC, they will face the winner of the Arizona/Xavier game. Arizona has been one of the top teams all year, and they faced Wisconsin last year in the Elite 8 as well. They have a number of weapons on their team that can go off on any given night, including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who hails from Bo Ryan's home town of Chester, Pennsylvania. If it gets to that point, the Dekker/Hollis-Jefferson matchup will be one to watch.
To get to the Final Four, Wisconsin just needs to keep being who they are, which is a low tempo, high efficiency team. Kaminsky will need to be his usual self, and I'm sure he'll do great as he always turns it up a notch in the biggest of games. But most importantly the supporting cast will need to do what they've done all season. They can all score 10-15 points every night, and Traevon Jackson who will be returning from 10 week long injury will provide an additional boost for the Badgers.
Traevon Jackson's return provides a bit of uncertainty for the Badgers, who have been without him since January 11th. Whenever a player comes back from injury there is an adjustment period for the team when they have to get used to playing with him in a game situation. The shorter this period is for the Badgers, the better off they will be. Bo Ryan will have the team ready, but because Wisconsin's offense is predicated on their passing and ball movement, adjustments are going to have to be made to get Jackson back into the flow. He can be the key piece that propels them to the Championship, or he could throw the team off rhythm and cause an early plane ride home to Madison.