College basketball stereotypes are a dangerous thing. Since the turn of the 21st century, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh have generally have been viewed nationally as programs predicated on toughness and fundamentally sound basketball. The 2016 versions of the Badgers and Panthers wear these stereotypes fairly well, but these two particular teams are different in a number of ways that could make the difference in what is expected to be a tight game in St. Louis.
The first thing to examine is the difference between the resumes of each of these two teams. Pittsburgh has been the more consistent of the two teams this year and has a better record than Wisconsin despite being the lower seed, but the Panthers finished a lowly 1-7 against top 25 ranked KenPom opponents. The one win was a late-February home victory 76-62 over the Blue Devils that ended up being a huge part of Pittsburgh's case for tournament worthiness. The Panthers avoided the egregiously bad losses that Wisconsin piled up on their resume early in the year, but the Badgers finished the season with at least one win over nearly all of the top teams in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin's resume suggests they have a higher ceiling in this tournament, but the youthful nature of their roster is a cause for concern. This is new territory for most of the members of the Wisconsin rotation; only Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig had significant roles in the last two deep tournament runs by the Badgers. On the other hand, Pittsburgh is loaded with a number of seniors and juniors and is one of the more experienced teams in this year's field. James Robinson, Michael Young, and Jamel Artis all played a fair number of minutes in Pittsburgh's 2014 2nd-round tournament exit, and most of the team's rotation should be intimately familiar with handling the pressure of postseason play at this point of their careers.
Wisconsin's resurgence this season has largely been due to improved play from their three frontcourt starters. Freshman center Ethan Happ has become an offensive force in the post with a masterful display of footwork. Junior forward Vitto Brown is shooting the three-pointer at nearly a 40% clip and his emergence as a perimeter threat has opened up opportunities for his teammates. Junior forward Hayes has been asked to play more on the perimeter this season and he has been incredibly hard to guard this year, drawing fouls left and right and starting to get into a shooting rhythm with his revamped jumper motion.
Pittsburgh has also been driven by their frontcourt play. Junior Michael Young sees a fair amount of action at center and leads the team in per-game points (16) and rebounds (7). The Panthers have been one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation thanks largely to Young and junior forward Sheldon Jeter. Artis, also a junior, is averaging about 15 points and 5 rebounds per game this year and is a threat to score anywhere on the floor. Pittsburgh is also a top free-throw shooting team nationally; Young, Artis, and Jeter all have free throw percentages of at least 79 percent this season.
Both teams play at slower paces and a physical game is expected. It will be interesting to see if one team's frontcourt secures the upper hand or if they battle to a draw. The youth of Greg Gard's team will remain a concern throughout the tournament for Badger fans, but Jeter's comments disapproving of Wisconsin's style of play could be a bit of extra motivation for the Badgers in this particular game. If both teams play their best basketball, Wisconsin will come out on top. If both teams play their worst basketball, Pitt will be the victor.