Eighth-seeded Wisconsin drew ninth-seeded Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers (25-9) and Hokies (22-10) will tip off in Buffalo, New York at 8:40 p.m. (CT) on Thursday night. The teams, who haven’t met since Wisconsin’s Trevon Hughes hit a game-winner with 0.9 seconds left in 2008, offer very opposing styles of play.
The matchup brings an interesting storyline, as the Badgers meet Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams, who had some battles with Wisconsin while he was the coach at Marquette. That familiarity with each other’s style of play could provide an interesting angle to Thursday’s game. However, the game is decided on the floor and there are plenty of on-court matchups that will determine the outcome.
The most intriguing storyline is how Virginia Tech’s athleticism matches up with the size of Wisconsin. Virginia Tech plays one player above 6-foot-7, and the 6-foot-10 Khadim Sy is averaging just 11.4 minutes per game. That’s a huge juxtaposition for a Wisconsin team that starts a trio of legitimate big men in 6-foot-8 Nigel Hayes, 6-foot-8 Vitto Brown and 6-foot-10 Ethan Happ.
And the Badgers don’t just have size, they use it.
Point guard Bronson Koenig runs the show, but the Badgers run a majority of their offense through Hayes and Happ in the paint. A quick, aggressive team like Virginia Tech is probably going to double the post, a formula that worked well when Wisconsin lost five out of six games late in the regular season.
Happ has gotten out of sorts when the double comes, losing his footwork or making a hurried pass. The Hokies should look to double hard when he gets it in the post. However, Hayes is a different story. The senior forward has consistently beat teams passing from the post, whether kicking it out to shooters or finding Happ on the other side of paint when the double comes from down low.
We should find out in the first couple minutes how the Hokies want to attack Hayes in the post. If they choose to double, they’ll have to hope that the Badgers’ shooters are off on Thursday.
While the Badgers may appear to have the advantage on the offensive side of the ball, they’re going to have a tough time keeping up with a Virginia Tech team that is averaging 79.3 points per game. Wisconsin is typically together defensively, holding opponents to 61.4 points per game, but they don’t necessarily have the pure quickness to keep up with the Hokies.
Wisconsin’s defensive positioning will be crucial if they’re going to limit Virginia Tech. It’ll likely be rare that Happ and Brown share the court together, as the Badgers will look to play a three-guard lineup that can run with the Hokies.
An interesting wrinkle will be when Zach LeDay and Seth Allen come in off the Virginia Tech bench. The seniors were the only players to come off the Virginia Tech bench in the last two games. And they bring a scoring punch with them, as LeDay is scoring a team-high 16.3 points per game and Allen is second with 13.4 points per game.
Wisconsin is going to have to stagger their rotations in order to keep their scoring intact when the bench comes in. The Baddgers have little scoring punch outside of the starters, as D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson are the leading scorers off the bench, averaging 5.9 points and 3.9 points, respectively.
However, Trice, Iverson and Jordan Hill all have the quickness to keep up with the Hokies on the perimeter. That’ll allow the Badgers to throw a number of looks at a Virginia Tech team that is shooting 40.3 percent from behind the arc, which is good for 13th in the nation. That will do wonders in spelling Zak Showalter, who typically chases around the other team’s best perimeter player every game.
LeDay will also be relied upon to limit Happ and Hayes down low. At 6-foot-7, LeDay leads the Hokies with 7.4 points and 1.0 block per game and has the ability to cause trouble down low for a Wisconsin team that is lacking explosive finishers. Wisconsin should have the advantage on the boards, as the Badgers outrebound opponents by 6.3 rebounds per game and the Hokies have a minus-2.2 average rebounding margin.
The makeup of the rosters will likely force the teams to feel each other out early on. Wisconsin’s veteran experience should give them the ability to do that, but Virginia Tech also has nothing to lose and is trending upward after making its first tournament since 2007. It’ll be evident fairly early which side is going to win out, but I’d think that Wisconsin should be able to offset Virginia Tech’s fast pace and athleticism.