Conference: Big Ten (At-Large/Auto Bid)
Record: 23-8 (12-6)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 8 (East)
How they got to the Big Dance
Wisconsin has officially proven it doesn’t need Bo Ryan to remain a power in the Big Ten. Greg Gard has seamlessly transitioned the team from the Ryan era and hasn’t missed a beat. As a 7-seed last season, the Badgers upset 2-seed Xavier to get to the Sweet Sixteen. Although they lost their next game to Notre Dame, they essentially picked up right where they left off this season. Despite early season losses to Creighton and North Carolina — both of which were ranked teams — the middle of Wisconsin’s season was just about as strong as it gets.
Wisconsin followed its loss to North Carolina with nine-straight wins before losing on the road to then No. 20 Purdue. The Badgers responded with another winning streak — this time it lasted eight games.
A late-season slide brought Wisconsin back down to earth a bit as the Badgers dropped five of their last seven. But a Senior Day blowout of Minnesota slotted Wisconsin as the 2-seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
Wisconsin has a little bit of everything. Bronson Koenig can knock down shots from anywhere, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are two of the better all-around players in the NCAA, and Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown are solid contributors, too. As a team, the Badgers average more than 10 points per game better than their opponents, putting up 72.4 while only surrendering 61.6. They also pull down 6.5 more rebounds than their opponents and grab seven steals a game. If Koenig stays as hot in the Big Dance as he was late in the season, he can carry the Badgers himself. That said, a one-man performance likely won’t be necessary as Happ and Hayes average more than 13 points per contest apiece.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
The late losses are reason for concern. Despite a convincing win on Senior Day, Wisconsin hasn’t been playing particularly well over the past few weeks. None of the losses during its skid were bad per se, but losing five of seven is a negative regardless of the scores or opponents. For a team that cracked the top 10 in the AP Poll this season, it would be surprisingly hard to sell this team as a contenders at the moment.
Player to watch: Forward Nigel Hayes
At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Hayes is a physically imposing forward. Not only can he play with his back to the basket, but he can knock down 3-pointers as well. Hayes imposes his will on the boards too, pulling down 6.2 rebounds per game, second only to Ethan Happ. While Happ may be the best player on the team and Koenig leads the team in scoring, Hayes’ performance in the tournament will likely determine the Badgers’ fate. If the senior forward can play like he did as a sophomore on the way to the National Championship game, Wisconsin could make some noise. If Hayes has games like he did against Ohio State and Michigan in February in which he didn’t even score 10 points, Wisconsin could be in for an early-round exit.