NCAA tourney preview: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech
This is a seasoned team that has played a lot of NCAA games in recent years, winning nine of their last 10 NCAA opening tilts. Wisconsin was the NCAA runner-up in 2015 and reached the Final Four in 2014. Last year, the Badgers played in the Sweet 16.
So, seniors like Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have played a lot of ball under the March spotlight. They won’t be fazed. A big buzz on Selection Sunday was the fact many felt the Badgers got a poor seed, considering Wisconsin finished second in the Big Ten in the regular season and reached the league tourney title game. The Badgers’ reward? A rotten No. 8 seed. Win the opening game, and Wisconsin likely will tangle with the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed and defending national champ Villanova.
No time for a pity party. Wisconsin has the weapons to make another run, led by Koenig’s stone-cold deadly shooting and Hayes’ muscular game down low. And sophomore Ethan Happ has a great low-post game and is a standout defender for a UW program making its 19th consecutive NCAA trip.
No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech, Thursday, Buffalo, East
Greg Gard’s NCAA record: 2-1
Last NCAA appearance: 2016, lost to Notre Dame in Sweet 16
Key player: Ethan Happ is a force in the paint whose versatility is unmatched. Yes, Happ lacks a jump shot, and his free-throw shooting is spotty. But Happ is tough to stop in the post and has soft hands. He also doubles as one of the top defenders in the Big Ten. Happ was the nation’s only player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals during conference play. And he became just the fourth major conference player over the last 20 years to lead his team in all five categories during conference play.
Key number: 61.4, points allowed per game by Wisconsin. That’s No. 1 in the Big Ten. Ethan Happ leads the way as one of the top defenders in the league. But playing good defense is a trait of all Badger players and is a big reason for the program’s success.
Know Virginia Tech: The Hokies are a balanced squad that boasts five players who average at least 9.1 points. Zach LeDay leads the way with a 15.6 average. Others to watch are Seth Allen, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs and Justin Robinson. Rebounding is an issue, especially since Chris Clarke was lost for the season with an injury. He was a good athlete who was adept at passing, too. And he also helped keep things together. Ty Outlaw has picked up the slack. Still, Clarke is missed for a Va Tech program making its first NCAA appearance since 2007 and just its second since 1996.