Match-up: 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. 7 Wisconsin Badgers
TV: TBS (Brian Anderson/Steve Smith/Dana Jacobson)
Date and Time: Friday 3/25, 7:27pm ES
Location: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, PA
Ever since taking over for the retiring Bo Ryan in December, Greg Gard and his Wisconsin Badgers have gone 15-7. A 7-game win streak and 11 out of 12 game stretch in the meat of their Big Ten schedule rocketed the Badgers into the NCAA Tournament conversation and safely into the field.
Some of Gard's best wins included home wins against Indiana and Michigan State and road wins at Maryland and Iowa. Now, they've made it to the Sweet 16 by virtue of narrow wins over Pittsburgh and Xavier, the latter of which was in highly dramatic fashion as Bronson Koenig hit threes in the final two possessions to tie and win the game at the buzzer.
The win over Xavier looked highly unlikely, as the Musketeers appeared to have a good-but-not-great grip on that game for much of the second half until Koenig's heroics. Before that, Wisconsin somewhat stumbled into the Round of 32, having lost in their B1G Tournament opener handily to lowly Nebraska and defeated Pittsburgh in a NCAA Tournament's opening round game that only reached 90 combined points between the two teams.
With a struggling offense thus far in the postseason (Wisconsin has yet to hit an offensive efficiency rating of 100), the Badgers come in at just 87th in KenPom's offensive rating, a far cry from last year's record setting offense. Their key to success this season is on the defensive end (12th in AdjD), where they have yielded just three games of defensive ratings over 100 since the calendar turned to February. For comparison's sake, Notre Dame has only yielded a sub-100 rating ONCE since the start of February.
Altogether, these teams are nearly dead even on KenPom, with the Badgers at 31st and Notre Dame at 34th. FiveThirtyEight has this as literally a 50/50 match-up. Teamrankings.com has this at 51/49 in "favor" of Wisconsin. All that's to say, if you think this is anything other than a coin flip, you are just kidding yourself.
G Bronson Koenig
G Zak Showalter
F Nigel Hayes
F Vitto Brown
C Ethan Happ
G Jordan Hill
F Khalil Iverson
Wisconsin has some star power, with no one in the spotlight right now more than Bronson Koenig. The Badger point guard was one of the big stories of the tournament's opening weekend following his corner buzzer-beating three to upset Xavier, just one possession following another three that tied the game up after Wisconsin trailed most of the second half.
The Koenig-Demetrius Jackson match-up is a great one for college hoops fans, with Koenig certainly the better defender and outside shooter, but Jackson the better scorer and more important in initiating his team's offense. In fact, the "better defender on Wisconsin" versus the "more important offensive player on Notre Dame" is a running theme in this one.
Ethan Happ vs. Zach Auguste is probably an exception there, as both players excel as efficient post scorers and rebounders. Auguste rates a little better in both categories, but not by much, and Happ has been very efficient so far in the tournament. Foul trouble may be a story line, but an otherwise great post match-up between two centers with different styles.
Nigel Hayes was the star of this team coming into this season but has struggled to score efficiently, especially in the tournament (just 5 of 27 from the field in the two games). Hayes is a terrific athlete who poses plenty of problems at 6'8", and regardless of whether he can regain some of his offense, he is sure to be a nightmare on the defensive end, likely for some combination of Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem, and Bonzie Colson.
Certainly, Wisconsin's trio of Koenig, Hayes, and Happ earn all the headlines, but Vitto Brown is exactly the type of player that should worry Notre Dame. He will likely have the opportunity to bang with V.J. Beachem down low but has a clear size and strength advantage over the Irish wing. The Irish also have a tendency to lose shooters off-the-ball, and Brown is a guy that can knock down shots, having Wisconsin's best three-point shooting percentage (40%). As his likely primary defender, Beachem will have a tough inside-outside match-up for much of this game.
Wisconsin's bench does not feature a major scoring threat like Notre Dame with Bonzie Colson, but a couple guys deeper on the bench (Charlie Thomas and Alex Illakainen) bring some size that Greg Gard will likely give some minutes to try to make Zach Auguste and Colson work for their points and on the boards, especially if Happ finds himself in any kind of foul trouble.
The offense looks like it is back. That 127 efficiency rating against Stephen F. Austin, KenPom's 21st best defense in the country (not to mention a strong second half against Michigan), has given me a lot of amnesia from some of the poor offensive efforts down the stretch of this season. Can the inept offense we saw against Florida State or Miami or UNC return? Yes, of course, but seeing Demetrius Jackson return to normal this past weekend gives me a lot of confidence that this offense is reasonably back.
Enter Wisconsin, KenPom's 12th best defense (SFA was 11th entering Sunday). The Badger defense has been incredibly stingy, although they have faced few teams throughout the B1G schedule whose offense really compares favorably to Notre Dame's. Meanwhile, the offense has been fairly painful this postseason, shooting 30% (20% 3pt%) against Nebraska, 32% (21% 3pt%) against Pitt, and a decent 42% (30% 3pt%) against Xavier.
This is classic strength-on-strength, weakness-on-weakness stuff. These two teams were one shot away from meeting in last year's Final Four, and while that one could have been an all-timer, you almost get the sense that the drop-off for both these teams might give us some ugliness on Friday night.
Ugliness is what Wisconsin wants. Slow it down, beat you up, make everything difficult, keep you to one shot a possession. That's just not Notre Dame's game right now, as they want a faster (but still controlled) tempo, precision on offense, and to keep out of foul trouble on defense.
I still think we are in for some fun in this one, as both of these teams just have a penchant for the dramatic these last couple tournaments, including both of their wins this past Sunday. I definitely think we are due for a close one that will be decided down the stretch. Some stretches of struggling offense will eventually give way to a second half of great execution on both sides, and the last ten minutes of the game will be a back-and-forth nail-biter.
Fans of both teams are likely confident at this point in their team to make shots down the stretch and pull out close games. Both teams have done so twice in a row to get to this point. Still, I'm of the mind that, in those moments, great offense beats great defense, and despite Koenig's heroics last Sunday, I am less confident that the Badgers will make the shots necessary to pull it out against a top ten offensive team. I also tend to really like the better free-throw shooting teams in these tight games, and in that sense, it's not even close; the Irish have a clear advantage from the stripe (Wisconsin was 70% during conference play and is 61% in the tournament; Notre Dame was 77% in conference and during the tournament).
Ultimately, I think Demetrius Jackson and V.J. Beachem get it done in this one. Those two guys have just taken over late in the second half the last two games in ways that no one on Wisconsin has offensively. This one's close all the way through, but some late free throws give the Irish some cushion and a spot in their second-straight Elite 8.
Notre Dame 67