#1 Villanova Wildcats (32-3) vs. #8 Wisconsin Badgers (26-9)
When: Saturday, March 18, 2017, at 2:40 p.m.
Where: KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.
KenPom Prediction: 65-60, Villanova (66%)
How They Got In: At-Large Bid, Beat Virginia Tech in Opening Round of NCAA Tournament
Last Tournament Appearance: 2016, Lost to Notre Dame in Sweet Sixteen
Key Players for Wisconsin: #24 Bronson Koenig (6-3, 190) Sr., G; #10 Nigel Hayes (6-8, 240) Sr., F; #22 Ethan Happ (6-10, 230) So., F
Scouting Report: Wisconsin enters the NCAA Tournament regarded as the most talented eight-seed because of its impressive play throughout the regular season and conference tournament. The Badgers finished the regular season 25-9 (12-6) in the Big Ten while advancing all the way to the Big Ten Tournament Championship, only to lose to Michigan, one of the hottest teams in the nation. Wisconsin looked to have the Big Ten Regular Season Championship in their sights as they entered February with an 8-1 conference record, but soon fell apart. The Badgers lost five of six games from mid-February to early March, including losses to Ohio State and Iowa. The collapse pushed them to third in the Big Ten standings, behind Purdue and Maryland. Wisconsin regained its form in the conference tournament by cruising past Indiana and Northwestern.
The Badgers are led by seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Koenig, the hero of the 2016 NCAA Tournament that hit the buzzer-beating three in an upset of No. 2-seed Xavier, returns to the Big Dance averaging a team-high 14.5 points per game on just a touch under 40 percent from deep. Koenig’s shooting was a big reason for Wisconsin’s first round win over Virginia Tech. The senior made a program-high eight of his 17 three-point attempts, beating the previous mark by one more made attempt. Koenig scored a game-high 28 points in a 84-74 win over the Hokies. He’ll look to get his shot against an aggressive Villanova defense.
Hayes, on the other hand, gives Wisconsin a dominant inside presence to pair next to emerging star and matchup nightmare Ethan Happ. The senior forward comes into the Second Round matchup averaging 13.6 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game. In the win against Virginia Tech, Hayes recorded 16 points and 10 rebounds, including a game high six offensive boards. He is an athletic big man that can finish through traffic around the basket. The 6-foot-8 forward has had big game experience, playing in the Badgers’ run to the championship game a couple years ago. The one-two senior punch of Koenig’s shooting and Hayes’ inside presence present a tough, balanced attack for Villanova to handle.
While Villanova deals with that, it will probably find out there’s another tough tandem that includes Hayes. It’s the imposing frontcourt duo between him and Happ. As a sophomore, Happ is no slouch. He is an excellent two-way player that is an anchor on both ends of the court. He’s averaging just under a double-double, hovering around the 13.0 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game mark. So while the Badgers may look to their senior leaders to pave the way, you shouldn’t overlook the Naismith National Player of the Year semifinalist in Happ.
The experience of this Wisconsin team will show as they look to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth year in a row–a streak that includes a National Championship appearance and another Final Four trip. Both Koenig and Hayes have been around for those deep runs and have valuable tournament experience they’ve passed down to younger players on the roster. The tournament experience of the Badgers gives the Wildcats another problem to balance on an already full plate, although Villanova has some experience of its own (see: 2016 NCAA Tournament).
Outlook: Expect Wisconsin to come out firing early from deep with Koenig and Zak Showalter leading the charge. Both guards can shoot the lights out, opening the post for players like Hayes and Happ to work. If the guards are making shots, the balanced attack of the Badgers could be enough to derail the top-seeded Wildcats.
One area of concern for the Badgers is the free throw line. As a team, Wisconsin shoots an underwhelming 65 percent from the charity stripe. The Wildcats, as we know, are one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, connecting on almost 80 percent of their attempts. With the game expected to be low-scoring because of the defensive prowess of both programs, free throws could be the X-factor of the game.
Overall, I expect Wisconsin and Villanova to go back and forth throughout the game. Mikal Bridges‘ length presents a challenge for the Badgers defensively that could help Villanova overcome the balanced attack. Darryl Reynolds could also see a jump in minutes from the 16 he logged against Mount St. Mary’s to combat the interior presence of Happ and Hayes. In the end, the Wildcats will be able to control the game, led by none other than Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson. It may not be pretty, but Villanova will get the job done.
The ‘Cats will dance on to the Sweet Sixteen.