Caleb King’s (@calebking_2) Preview:The Badgers are in the NCAA Tournament for the 19th straight season. That is among the top streaks in the nation. Also, this is the Badgers 15th consecutive season where the football team has made a Bowl Game and the Basketball team has made the Big Dance. That’s the longest streak in the nation, and the closest behind them is on only their 4th year.
The Badgers will open up their NCAA Tournament play out East in Buffalo as the top 8 seed as they take on the 9 seed Hokies from Virginia Tech. The game is slated to begin 25 minutes following top seed Villanova’s game, approximate tip time for the Badgers is 8:40CT.
In the past 3 seasons, the Badgers have the most wins out of any program in the country in the NCAA Tournament with 11. That owes thanks to the back-to-back Final Four runs in 2014 and 2015, along with 2 wins in last year’s tournament as a 7 seed.
Let’s meet the Virginia Tech Hokies.
The Hokies belong to the tough Atlantic Coast Conference where they finished 8th in the league with a record of 10-8 and an overall record of 22-10. The Hokies are led by Zach LeDay who averages 16.3ppg and 7.4rpg. Seth Allen is also a key contributor for the Hokies as he tosses in 13.4ppg.
The beginning of the Hokies season was strong much like the Badgers, but they went through some struggles in the ACC before they pulled it together to finish the year strong. To begin their ACC campaign the Hokies defeated the Duke Blue Devils handily, 89-75. Their struggles turned around following a double overtime win against Virginia where they trailed 23-37 at the half. They would go on to win 6 of their last 9 to end the season. Seth Allen has been clutch for the Hokies this season, he’s had many clutch moments to carry Virginia Tech in games through the season. In games decided by 5 points or less, the Hokies are 8-4. That’s 12 games that have been within 5 points, so it’s no secret that the Hokies know how to battle down the stretch.
The Hokies are coached by Buzz Williams, and that should be a familiar name for Wisconsin fans. Buzz coached at Marquette from 2008-14 before he left for Virginia Tech. Buzz had some success against the Badgers in his tenure with the Golden Eagles, and you can bet that he hasn’t easily forgotten the days coaching in the Golden Eagle-Badger rivalry game. Buzz will have a lot of insight into how Wisconsin plays and operates.
But you can bet that Coach Greg Gard remembers a lot of how Buzz Williams coached as well.
Coach Gard leads the Badgers for the 2nd year into the NCAA Tournament. In his debut Tournament as the Head Coach for the Badgers last season he went 2-1, defeating Pittsburgh in the first round and downing the number 2 seed Xavier Musketeers thanks to a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater before they fell to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 after a collapse in the final minutes, kissing good-bye a trip to the Elite 8. The last time Greg Gard coached in a game in Buffalo, it was 1995 when he was in his second year assisting Bo Ryan at UW-Platteville and they won a National Championship in Division 3. Let’s hope some of that success is waiting for Gard as he returns to Buffalo.
The Badgers have had the textbook definition of a roller coaster year, at times playing like they could be in the top 5 in the country, and at other times seeming like they don’t belong in the RPI top 50. Wisconsin had a 3 game winning streak heading into the Big 10 Championship game, defeating Minnesota at home on Senior Day and went on to steam roll their way through their first two games in the Big 10 Tournament, defeating Indiana by 10 and Northwestern by 28 before falling to a HOT Michigan side by 15 in the Championship game.
Many would argue that the Badgers deserved a higher seed than they were rewarded, especially seeing that the Badgers received the 3rd worst seed out of the Big 10 teams that made the tournament after finishing 2nd in the Big 10 standings and getting to the Championship game in the Conference Tournament. But the fact of the matter is they didn’t. Just as Coach Gard said in a press conference earlier this week, “We need to move forward and prepare for Virginia Tech on Thursday night.”
The key to the Badgers success at the end of the season and in the Big 10 Tournament was their Seniors play. Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter, and Vitto Brown showed up to play and contributed in BIG ways. And that will be vital for the Badgers to replicate their past success that they’ve had recently in the Big Dance, especially from Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Both Bronson and Nigel played roles on the two Final Four teams and have led this Wisconsin team for the past seasons. Give Ethan Happ all the credit he deserves, and he deserves a ton for the success of this Badgers team, but the key to success for this Badgers team this Tournament will be the leadership of the Seniors. Bronson and Nigel have to set the pace. They have to have a high impact on the game from the get-go.
My Players to Watch for the Tournament are Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Bronson and Nigel understand that every game they take the floor from here on out could be their last. They’ve had the most success and wins in the NCAA Tournament in the past 3 seasons than anyone else in the country. They know what it takes to win, what it takes to lead a team to victory, what needs to happen for this Badgers team to move forward.
In the end we’re in the Tournament, right? Our record is 0-0 now, and so is everyone else’s. It’s a new season. It’s a new story. It’s survive and advance. It’s the NCAA Tournament.
My Prediction: Badgers 78, Hokies 71.
As always, #OnWisconsin