Trevor Block – Indy Writer
Nobody would blame you if you missed Bronson Koenig’s back-to-back threes to propel his Wisconsin Badgers into the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. If you’re a fan of March Madness, then you likely missed it because Texas A&M had just inexplicably erased an 11-point deficit with just under a minute left in the game, and you were watching that instead.
A&M’s comeback will go down in March Madness history as one of the quickest comebacks ever. And it may forever shadow Koenig’s beautiful, fall-away corner three point buzzer beater for most. But make no mistake, this Wisconsin team is as dangerous as any in the tournament.
Let me rephrase that. Wisconsin at their best is not a better team than the likes of North Carolina, Virginia or Kansas. Thankfully for the Badgers, each matchup is just one game. One game in which anything can happen, as we’ve seen countless times this tournament. Is Middle Tennessee a better team than Michigan State? No. But they were on the 19th. Anything can happen. Any time. Any place. That’s the beauty of March.
So let’s take a look at what makes Wisconsin a potential bracket buster (as if our brackets weren’t already busted) deep into the tournament.
This is the third straight year the Badgers have made it to the Sweet 16. Last year’s team ended up losing the championship to Coach K’s Blue Devils after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four. That was Kentucky’s first loss all season. The year before that, Wisconsin lost in the Final Four to Julius Randle’s Kentucky Wildcats. It’s a shame that Indiana spoiled a potential third straight year of a Kentucky-Wisconsin Final Four matchup.
The 2014 and 2015 Final Four Badgers were captained by Frank Kaminsky as well as several other familiar faces. This year is a completely different story for Bo Rya- excuse me- Greg Gard’s Wisconsin Badgers.
Their experience is limited, as Greg Gard is in his first season as head coach after legendary Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan stepped down early in the season. Only Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes returned from last year’s runner-up team as pivotal players. Vito Brown and Zak Showalter were there, though they hardly had enough playing time to call it experience.
The 2016 Badgers are led by these four as well as redshirt-freshman Ethan Happ, freshman Kahil Iverson and redshirt-sophomore Jordan Hill. Ethan Happ has strung together a couple nice tournament games, scoring 15 of Wisconsin’s 47 points against Pittsburg and 18 against Xavier. Happ’s redshirt season last year was filled with lessons from fellow sure-footed big man Frank Kaminsky. Happ has benefited tremendously from the 2015 Player of the Year’s teachings.
Arguably Wisconsin’s best player, Nigel Hayes, was nonexistent against Xavier Sunday night, shooting 2-10 from the field and 0-5 from three. The good news is, the Badgers came away with the win despite an uncharacteristically bad performance from a key player. Look for Hayes to bounce back against Notre Dame on Friday night.
Speaking of key players……Do I really even need to say anything about how huge Bronson Koenig was?
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2016
Before that shot, Koenig hit a deeeeep three to tie the game, which was followed by an offensive foul drawn by defensive specialist Zak Showalter. Koenig finished with 20 for the game and primed himself as one of the most important players coming into Friday’s matchup against the Irish.
What makes Wisconsin so dangerous is their inattention to those who said they would flop by now. New coach. Inexperience. Undersized. It’s all noise to the group clad in red and white.
Speaking of undersized, Ethan Happ will have his hands full on Friday with Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste, who dropped 16 points to go along with 15 rebounds in the Irish’s second round win against Steven F. Austin (thanks to yet another buzzer beater). Auguste stands at 6’10” and makes a living in the paint. Aside from Auguste, the Badgers shouldn’t have an issue with size against the Irish, as the rest of their lineup is similar in size to the Badgers.
Friday’s matchup will come down to defense yet again. Wisconsin is only giving up 53 points per game between their first two matchups. That’s good enough for second in the tournament, trailing Syracuse who has only let up 50.5 points over their two games.
Wisconsin looks geared up to make a somewhat unlikely run at the Final Four for the third consecutive year. Notre Dame looks like a favorable matchup for the shutdown Badgers. Then again, that’s why they call it Madness.
How about just one more look at that game winner?
— Barstool Sports (@barstooltweets) March 21, 2016
Sorry Bill Murray.