8-Wisconsin vs. 9-Virginia Tech
9:40 p.m. Thursday at KeyBank Center
Reliable is the best way to describe the Wisconsin Badgers. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament field 19 years in a row.
To get there this season, they’ve relied on their trademark defense, which ranked 11th in the country in defensive efficiency. As has been the case in the past, however, offense has gone lacking too often for the Badgers, who started the season 21-3, but lost five of six late in the regular season before rebounding to reach the Big Ten championship game. Even if they’re not in peak form, the Badgers have been here before, with their seniors having played in 14 NCAA Tournament games.
That’s a lot more experience than a Virginia Tech team appearing in the Big Dance for the first time in a decade. Hokies coach Buzz Williams, however, has coaxed some March magic out of teams before, most notably in his last stop at Marquette.
A top-10 team for the first three months of the season, the Badgers are led by the trio of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and sophomore center Ethan Happ. He led the Big Ten in total steals – rare for a player at his position.
Wisconsin shot 34 percent from three-point range and just 62 percent from the free-throw line in conference games. When the Badgers settle for jump shots, they struggle. That’s true of Hayes, who averaged four made free throws in wins, but just two in losses. Happ is probably Wisconsin’s best player, but is a terrible free-throw shooter (49 percent), so he’s often on the bench when the game is in crunch time.
Wisconsin has reached the Sweet 16 the past three years, and five of the last six, so they’re a dangerous eighth seed.
It seems strange, but Virginia Tech’s two leading scorers come off the bench. Seniors Zach LeDay and Seth Allen combine for nearly 30 points per game, with Allen winning ACC Sixth Man of the Year. LeDay, meanwhile, dropped 31 points and 15 rebounds against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament.
Tech’s best offensive weapon is the three-point shot. The Hokies finished first in the ACC and seventh nationally, hitting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc. Depth is absolutely the biggest concern. Coach Buzz Williams has only eight scholarship players, and uses only seven of them. That makes staying out of foul trouble paramount for the Hokies.
Williams has steadily built his program from 11 wins two years ago to an NIT berth last season and now a ticket to the Big Dance.
This game might look a little different if the Hokies hadn’t lost sophomore forward Chris Clarke to a torn ACL in February. He was the Hokies’ best rebounder. Without him, the Badgers have the edge on the inside.
Prediction: Wisconsin 65, Virginia Tech 58