Wisconsin’s streak of 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances was snapped last March, but it appears that the Badgers are trending upwards once again and will look to start another streak this season when Selection Sunday rolls around.
The Badgers bring back nine of their top ten scorers this season (Andy Van Vliet transferred to William and Mary at the end of last season) and only had one senior graduate in Aaron Moesch. Led by Preseason All-American Ethan Happ, Wisconsin has played extremely well over their first three games, where they’ve started 3-0 for the first time since the 2014-2015 season (not to make any comparisons, but that team did reach the National Championship…). Granted, the competition has been sparse in the first couple of games, but one of those wins includes a road win at Xavier, a game that many thought the Badgers would lose.
So what have we learned in the first three games?
For starters, Ethan Happ is very, very good—it’s a small sample size, but he once again leads Wisconsin in points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game. The most important stat is the assists—he’s averaging 7.7 assists per game, which is 12th in the country and above many of the elite point guards in college basketball. He also has some of the best footwork I’ve ever seen at the college basketball level—if he developed a semblance of a shot, he’d be even more unstoppable than he already is.
We’ve also seen that the backcourt is deep—D’Mitrik Trice is on fire right now, and if he continues to be a presence from behind the arc, this team can be really good. Davison was thrust into the fire last season when Trice went down due to injury and proved that he can lead this team. King is still working his way back from last year’s knee injury, and Pritzl seems to be finding his confidence after two hot shooting performances to start the year.
But as the Battle 4 Atlantis approaches, we’re about to find out who this team really is. Their first matchup in the bracket against Stanford, a team that lost star forward Reid Travis to Kentucky. If the Badgers play as well as they’ve played to start the year, they should have no problem with the Cardinal, a team projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12.
That would leave Wisconsin with a very interesting matchup with either Oklahoma or Florida—if it’s Florida, it’s a revenge game against the team that ended their tournament run two years ago on a miracle shot—there are plenty of players still on the Badgers that remember that game all too well. If the Sooners advance, the Badgers would be tasked with stopping both the Big 12’s leading scorer in the in Christian James and leading rebounder in Brady Manek.
We’ll stick with our hypothetical scenario and say that the Badgers get past either of those teams and advance to the championship, where they would likely take on the Virginia Cavaliers, the number four team in the country. Virginia returns four of their top six scorers from a year ago, where they were the number one overall seed before falling to UMBC in the first round, the first ever win for a 16-seed. The last two times that Wisconsin has met Virginia, their matchups have been defensive to say the least—in the 2013-2014 season, the Badgers won an ugly 48-38 game where both teams shot under 30%. Last season, the Cavaliers got revenge, winning yet another ugly 49-37 game as Wisconsin managed only 17 second-half points.
It’ll be a tall task for Wisconsin, but if they can find it in themselves to win this tournament, they will add several quality wins to their resume. And if they don’t, consider it a learning experience for a team poised for a bounce-back year.
Stats courtesy of ESPN