Sweet 16 Preview: No. 7 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Notre Dame

Sweet 16 Preview: No. 7 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Notre Dame

B1G INTERVIEW - Wisconsin's men's basketball team celebrates their win over Xavier in the Round of 32.

In early January, Wisconsin was 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten. A ticket to the Big Dance? It seemed to be a longshot at that point. This team looked lost. But, it all changed after a loss at Northwestern that proved to be the nadir for the Badgers in their 9-9 start.

[ MORE: View interactive NCAA tourney bracket ]

Wisconsin went 11-3 from that point to now, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last six years. Now, the Badgers have their sights set on getting back to the Final Four for the third season in a row.

Credit Greg Gard, who took over as interim head coach in December after Bo Ryan abruptly retired and became full-time head coach late in the season. Gard knows how to coach.

Best-case scenario: Some were concerned at Wisconsin’s “no-show” performance in the Big Ten tourney, as the Badgers lost 70-58 to Nebraska in their first game in Indianapolis. And, frankly, Wisconsin looked bad in doing so. Was this team ready for the big stage of the Big Dance? Yep. After an ugly just-find-a-way-to-win 47-43 first-round triumph vs. No. 10 Pitt, the Badgers resorted to theatrics to knock off No. 2 Xavier on a last-second shot by Bronson Koenig. Now, a winnable game vs. No. 6 Notre Dame looms. Win that, and a third trip in a row to the Final Four would be on line … possibly vs. No. 5 Indiana, a team the Badgers split with this season—as each team won at home.

Key player: Bronson Koenig. The junior hit 6-of-12 from beyond the arc in tallying 20 points in the big win vs. Xavier. And one of this 3-pointers tied the game, while the other won it at the buzzer. Sensational stuff. Interestingly, Koenig had just two points in a tourney opening win vs. No. 10 Pitt. This guy must keep being a star—and hitting big shots—if Wisconsin wants its magic ride to continue.

Key number: 63.9, points allowed per game by Wisconsin. That’s No. 1 in the Big Ten. The Badgers are famous for their ability to play defense … and not foul. And Wisconsin will have to be on its defensive game if it wants to get by Notre Dame … and then the winner of the No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Indiana clash in the Elite Eight. Wisconsin can’t try to trade hoops with Notre Dame, or most any team.

Know Notre Dame: This is a veteran team that is battle-tested, coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season. This season, the Irish have beaten the likes of Louisville, North Carolina and Duke … and lost four of their final seven games with three of those losses coming by 18 or more points. Big man Zach Auguste is the centerpiece of the Irish attack. Keep an eye on the battle between him and Badger wunderkind Ethan Happ. Point man Demetrius Jackson is a special talent whose matchup with Bronson Koenig will be fun. And ND has a deadly 3-point shooter in V.J. Beachem, a 6-8 sharpshooter who nails 43 percent of his bombs. Like Wisconsin, Notre Dame is coming off a last-second win in the second round as the Irish’s Rex Pflueger tipped-in the winning bucket in the dying seconds vs. Stephen F. Austin after ND opened the NCAA tourney with a victory vs. No. 11 Michigan.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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