Selection Sunday is one of the most exciting and agonizing days in college basketball. Every team waits with bated breath to see where they are slotted and whom they will be playing against.
This season, the Wisconsin Badgers had one of the great shocks of the last few years, falling all the way to an eight seed despite finishing second in the Big Ten during the regular season and the tournament. Considering where other teams were seeded (looking at you, Minnesota), having the Badgers slated to play the number one overall seed in the second round felt like a slap in the face. Rather than shy away from the challenge, the Badgers elevated themselves to a level of play that they have not reached since the early portion of the season.
The committee clearly felt that the Badgers’ slump during February was reflective of who they were as a team. In fairness, recency bias is not a trait unique to the selection committee, and they were not alone in their criticism of the Big Ten as a whole.
The main difference during the tournament has been the play of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Hayes has had a strange season, dominating at times with a point forward style that is spectacular, while struggling at the free throw line and having low point totals during the latter portion of the year. He clearly shed whatever funk he was in during February and became the best version of himself in the last two games.
Hayes is at his best when he is using his unique combination of strength and quickness to explode to the basket, and that was never more evident than on his game-winning basket against Villanova. Teams have tried to hide smaller defenders on Hayes to allow their big men to deal with Ethan Happ, and he punished the Wildcats throughout the game.
The entire season, this team has gone as Bronson Koenig has gone. When Koenig was hurt for a decent stretch toward the end of the Big Ten season, the Badgers struggled. Now healthy, Koenig is back where Wisconsin fans always hoped he would be.
After a 28-point explosion against Virginia Tech, Koenig maintained his poise despite picking up his fourth foul at the 12-minute mark in the second half against Villanova. He came back in at the six-minute mark and immediately made his presence felt and settled the Badgers offense down. The degree of difficulty on his late jumpers cannot be understated, even if they have become routine for Koenig. The senior point guard has built a reputation for clutch buckets, and his tournament performance has cemented that legacy further.
The Badgers leaned on their two seniors to help show the committee, and the collective college basketball world, that they were under-seeded. They stepped up under the brightest lights, and if Badgers are going to continue their run, those two will have to maintain their stellar play.