Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, I wrote that Wisconsin was flying under the radar. The Badgers were a top 15 unit that nobody thought had a chance to win in Chicago. And while Wisconsin did, indeed, end up falling short, that narrative has seemed to carry over to the NCAA Tournament. Everyone seems to be doubting the Badgers as they prepare to head into the Big Dance.
But are those doubts legitimate? Can Wisconsin prove the haters wrong? Let’s take a look.
As a five seed in the South Region, Wisconsin has a tough, but manageable opening round matchup. The Badgers will face off against Oregon on Friday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. on TBS. Interestingly, it’s the third time the two schools have played since 2014 with all three games coming in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers were victorious in the previous two matchups.
On paper, Wisconsin is clearly the better of the two teams. Oregon may come into the NCAA Tournament with plenty of momentum, but the Ducks are only 23-12 overall and an underwhelming 42nd nationally on KenPom. For perspective, Indiana and Ohio State are 44th and 45th, respectively, on the advanced metrics site.
However, Oregon is a red hot team right now. The Ducks have won eight straight, including four times against top 60 teams on KenPom. Oregon has also trended up significantly on the advanced stats sites during that time, rising from 67th to 42nd in a month. Playing a hot team in march is usually something opponents like to avoid.
This game is largely going to come down to how Francis Okoro and Paul White matchup against Ethan Happ. Wisconsin has a clear advantage down low, but can the Ducks slow down Happ enough to come out with a win?
If They Advance
Should Wisconsin take care of business on Friday afternoon against Oregon, it will face off against either Kansas State or UC Irvine on Sunday. While Kansas State is largely expected to advance to the Round of 32, Friday’s matchup with UC Irvine looks tricky on paper. As such, it’s difficult to say with certainty who will advance.
On paper, Kansas State enters the NCAAs with a nationally elite defense and an underwhelming offense. In many ways, Kansas State looks relatively similar to Wisconsin. Both teams play slow, pride themselves on defense, and do just enough offensively to come away with wins.
Meanwhile, UC Irvine prides itself on defense as well, but comes in at just 60th nationally in defensive efficiency. However, the Anteaters are red hot, having won 16 straight coming into the NCAA Tournament and 19 of the team’s last 20 games. The team’s schedule was forgiving, but that’s a pretty impressive run.
After that, Wisconsin projects to play Virginia, Ole Miss, or Oklahoma. The Cavs are the one seed in the South Region and considered to be a legitimate national championship contender. As such, Wisconsin will be hoping for another Virginia upset, whether in the Round of 64 or the Round of 32.
This is going to sound like a blatantly obvious thing to say (it is), but there really is no key to beating Virginia this year. The Cavs are a phenomenal basketball team. Virginia is No. 1 in team efficiency on KenPom and only has three losses this season. Wisconsin will simply have to play great basketball across the board to win. Hit threes, play defense, and really do work on the boards to maximize each possession. Everyone will have to play well.
Should Wisconsin advance to the Elite Eight, it would likely be playing Tennessee, Purdue, Villanova, or Cincinnati. The Vols are the highest seeded team in the lower half of the South Region, but Purdue and Villanova are certainly great teams as well.
If the Badgers manage to make the Final Four, it’s anyone’s guess who would serve as potential opponents. Wisconsin is on the same side as the Midwest Region, so North Carolina and Kentucky project as the most likely Final Four opponents. Potential national championship opponents are Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, and Michigan.
There seems to be a lot of concern nationally about the Badgers coming into this year’s NCAA Tournament. However, much of that depends on how you value Oregon. Because Wisconsin actually projects to have a pretty reasonable path to moving on in the NCAA Tournament, if you believe the Ducks are the 40thish best team in the country.
But if you buy into the Ducks, things look pretty daunting for Wisconsin. A first round matchup against a red hot 12 seed, followed by either Kansas State or UC Irvine, and successive games against Virginia and somebody like Tennessee.
Whether Oregon has what it takes will be seen in just a few hours. But who knows? One or two upsets and the path could open wide. So, get ready for some thrilling matchups ahead.