Wisconsin was one of the most talked about teams when the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced on Sunday evening. The 25-9 Badgers earned the eighth seed in the East Region and will open up the tournament against ninth-seeded Virginia Tech on Thursday night in Buffalo. Many thought that an eight seed was too low for a team that was ranked the entire season and finished second in the Big Ten in both the regular season and the conference tournament.
I would have been fine with an eight seed based solely off of the Badgers’ play, which rarely reached the level everyone was expecting coming into the year. But an eight seed when Purdue is a four, Minnesota a five, Maryland a six and Michigan a seven?
Wisconsin was revealed early in the Selection Show, just the second pairing that CBS showed. At that time, the narrative was that the committee didn’t respect the Big Ten and would punish them for an underwhelming season.
However, as the bracket became clear, it was obvious that that wasn’t the case. Every other Big Ten team was arguably overseeded, from Purdue’s four seed all the way to Michigan State’s nine seed. Wisconsin is in effect the sixth-highest seeded team in the Big Ten, as Northwestern is also an eight seed, but the Badgers would play overall top seed Villanova in the second round, compared to Gonzaga for the Wildcats.
The first explanation of why the Badgers fell is that their non-conference schedule wasn’t up to par. But are we really saying that’s the case? Wisconsin fans were fired up at the start of the year because the Badgers appeared to have a loaded non-conference schedule that included Creighton, Tennessee, Georgetown, North Carolina, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Marquette. Sure, a few of those teams played well below their typical standards, but the Badgers were still tested by the time Big Ten play started.
The Badgers were apparently punished for the worst teams on their schedule. This doesn’t seem like the right way to approach things. When you’re a power conference team, playing the 300th-ranked team in the RPI shouldn’t be regarded any differently than playing the 200th-ranked team. Appalachian State is currently 300th in the RPI, while Illinois-Chicago checks in at 200.
If a team like Wisconsin loses either of those games, it’s going to be regarded as a bad loss. If they win, it’s another win over a bad team. There is no difference. Delineating between the bad teams is how Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule ends up being deemed way worse than a Minnesota one that included Mount St. Mary’s, Saint John’s, Arkansas, Southern Illinois, Florida State and Vanderbilt.
A very fair knock on the Badgers is their severe lack of big wins. The Badgers had 10 wins against top-100 RPI teams, including four against top-50 teams. The Badgers’ best wins were going 2-0 against Minnesota (20th RPI), 1-2 against Michigan (25), 1-0 against Maryland (34) and 1-1 against Northwestern (51). That doesn’t warrant a top-five seed, especially when the team lost five of six games late in the regular season.
There is one positive for the Badgers. They should have plenty of motivation heading into the weekend. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard has already shown his displeasure that the Badgers were scheduled at a Thursday/Saturday site after playing on Sunday. Getting a little extra motivation can only help a group of players that has gone to two final fours and came seconds away from an elite eight isn’t going to come into any game thinking they’re overmatched.
The Badgers are easily the biggest favorite of any 8 vs. 9 game, as a 5.5-point favorite on SportsLine. Wisconsin and Virginia Tech, who went 22-10 and took seventh in the ACC, have little in common. The Badgers boast size and their deliberate style of play. They like to force-feed Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes on the offensive end, while holding opponents to 61.4 points per game defensive. The Hokies go quicker, scoring 79.3 points per game and primarily playing guys 6-foot-7 and under.
That style of play has given Wisconsin trouble in the past, as the Hokies will likely look to speed up the Badgers’ decision makers. Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams is also familiar with what Wisconsin likes to do after playing the Badgers once per year while at Marquette. However, Wisconsin is as veteran as it comes, and should be able to stay in control and take advantage of their strengths.
The Badgers will be the third Big Ten team that Virginia Tech has faced this season. The Hokies are 2-0 against Big Ten opponents, earning a 66-53 win over Nebraska on Nov. 27 and a 73-70 win at Michigan on Nov. 30.
-If Wisconsin Advances
Saturday is really where the low seeding causes Wisconsin trouble, as defending national champion Villanova likely waits in the second round. The Wildcats won the Big East conference and tournament title, going 31-3 overall on the year.
However, no team has more experience than the Badgers and they won’t go into that game intimidated, especially since a number of these guys helped the Badgers knocked off a 38-0 Kentucky team in the Final Four two years ago.
Wisconsin also plays a style that could potentially give Villanova trouble. The Wildcats are dominated by their guard play, behind Josh Hart (18.9 ppg), Jalen Brunson (14.8) and Kris Jenkins (13.4).
Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter would likely relish the opportunity to chase Hart around for 40 minutes, but the Badgers will have difficulty manning up around the perimeter. However, the Badgers should have the advantage inside if they can get it to Happ and Hayes.
With that being said, it’s hard to imagine the Wisconsin team that we’ve watched all season going out and taking down Villanova. Even if they did, the East is widely regarded as the toughest region, with second-seeded Duke, third-seeded Baylor, fourth-seeded Florida, fifth-seeded Virginia, sixth-seeded SMU and seventh-seeded South Carolina as the teams seeded ahead of Wisconsin.
If the Badgers got through the first weekend and the rest of the top seeds won, odds are, they’d meet Virginia or Florida. The Cavaliers would be a fun, or boring, matchup, depending on how you look at it. Virginia has traditionally played as much like Wisconsin as any other team in the country. The Cavaliers are even stingier than the Badgers, giving up just 55.6 points per game, but they don’t necessarily having the scoring firepower to keep up if their opponent gets going.
Finally, any team in the East looking to get to the Final Four will likely have to get through Duke. The Blue Devils are peeking at the right time after an interesting regular season in which they went 27-8 overall and finished fifth in the ACC.
The prohibitive favorites at the beginning of the season, the Blue Devils, have more talent than anyone in the country and a potential Villanova-Duke elite eight matchup would be one of the most anticipated games of the tournament.
No matter how it shapes up, it doesn’t look like the Badgers are going to be around as long as they have the last three seasons.