Friday night's matchup features two teams both with a sour taste in their mouth after the conference tournament. Pittsburgh, a team squarely on the bubble, was able to beat Syracuse but got demolished by North Carolina, 88-71. Wisconsin suffered a similar fate, losing to Nebraska in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, 70-58.
Michael Young is the Panther's leading scorer, but the 6'9" junior has been somewhat inconsistent in his last few games. He does the majority of his work inside the arc, and shoots 54% from the floor for 16 points and seven rebounds. Young will likely be matched up with Nigel Hayes, while I expect Vitto Brown to get the matchup with Jamel Artis. The 6'7" junior does a little bit of everything, averaging 14 points, five rebounds and three assists while stretching the defense from 3 as well.
James Robinson is the third double-figure scorer and the senior has not been playing his best basketball as of late. He's been in double figures three of the last five games, but shot below 50% in four of those games. Robinson leads the teams with five assists per game and will undoubtedly be a handful on the perimeter, especially trying to get guys like Young and Artis going.
While Rafael Maia starts in the frontcourt, Sheldon Jeter and Ryan Luther split his minutes pretty evenly. Jeter is more of an inside presence and averages eight points and five rebounds per game, while Luther is a bit more of an outside threat and goes for five points and three rebounds. Luther might be an inch taller, but Jeter is definitely the more bruising player of the two.
The rest of the backcourt is made up of Chris Jones, a sophomore from Teaneck, NJ who has been hampered by foul trouble the last three games and Cameron Johnson, a 6'7" freshman who exploded for 24 points against Syracuse but can be extremely streaky.
On paper, it appears the two teams are extremely evenly matched. Neither team has a rotation player taller than 6'9", but both have a lot of guys around that size that they use in a variety of ways. In terms of actual play, however, the two teams could not be moving in more opposite directions.
The Panthers started off 14-1 before finishing the season going 7-10 in remaining games, while Wisconsin was 9-9 before going 11-3 down the stretch. The Nebraska loss absolutely stings for the Badgers, but Pittsburgh dropped games to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in March.
Overall, there's not really a secret formula to beating Pittsburgh. The Badgers need to hit shots, and that simply didn't happen against Nebraska. In a game that could have had a major impact on seeding but ultimately didn't, Wisconsin shot 16-53 from the field and 4-20 from 3. For a team trying to gain momentum before the NCAA Tournament, those types of numbers simply won't cut it.
While the Nebraska game was particularly poor, the Badgers finding their groove down the stretch could be extremely beneficial for the tournament. Nigel Hayes was excellent against Purdue, while Jordan Hill has been extremely solid behind Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter.
One area Wisconsin would love to establish more production is from their other bench pieces, as Charlie Thomas, Khalil Iverson and Alex Illikainen have gone quiet their last few games. If the Badgers can steal 10 or 15 points off the bench and give the starters some quality rest, this team remains one of the most dangerous in the entire country.
But first they'll have to get past Pittsburgh, a team hard to get a read on but stocked with talent and upperclassmen. If Wisconsin can find a way to limit Robinson, Artis and Young as much as possible, the Panthers could find themselves in trouble with little production behind them. Wisconsin has the talent to win this game, but it'll come down to late shot making and which team is tougher inside.