• Game 35: No. 6 Notre Dame (23-11) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (22-12)
• Date: March 25, 2016
• Place: Wells Fargo Center; Philadelphia, Pa.
• Time: 7:27 EDT
• TV: TBS
• Opponent nickname: Badgers
• Location: Madison, Wis.
• Head coach: Greg Gard (1st year): 15-7 (12-6)
Took over for Bo Ryan following Dec. 15 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as the Big Ten season was about to commence. Lost four of the first five, but closed by winning the next seven and 11 of the last 13 Big Ten games.
The Badgers lost in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament to Nebraska. As the No. 7 seed in the East Regional, they defeated No. 10 seed Pittsburgh, 47-43, and No. 2 seed Xavier, 66-63.
WISCONSIN’S WINNING WAYS
This is the 18th consecutive NCAA tournament for the Badgers, dating back to the 1999 post-season. In that time, Wisconsin has been to five Sweet 16s, two Elite 8s and back-to-back Final Fours in 2014-15, including last year’s championship loss to Duke.
Wisconsin’s 15 NCAA tournament victories since 2011 are the second-most in the country behind only Kentucky (20). The Badgers have won at least 20 games 10 years in a row and at least 12 Big Ten games seven straight seasons.
The Badgers have allowed 307 offensive rebounds in 34 games this season, an average of just nine per game. Second shots are difficult to come by against Wisconsin. The Badgers emphasize preventing lane penetration and packing the lane to avert second-chance opportunities.
It was an offensive rebound – freshman Rex Pflueger’s tip-in with 1.5 seconds remaining against Stephen F. Austin – that sent the Irish to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia to take on the Badgers.
“Just being aggressive and wedging out,” said 6-foot-10 senior Zach Auguste, who had seven offensive rebounds in the victory over Stephen F. Austin and eight in an ACC tournament win versus Duke.
“I watched the Xavier game, and I used to play against (Xavier’s) Jalen Reynolds, who is their starting center. I watched how he wedged out against a couple of their bigs. He had a lot of opportunities, but he wasn’t going after them as hard as I would.
“If I use that to my advantage, continue to wedge out guys, use my size, and move them out the way, I can grab (offensive) rebounds.”
Bonzie Colson, Auguste’s fellow big up front, will see increased action compared to his 13 minutes against Stephen F. Austin.
“Bonzie will play a lot in this game to help us out with (Nigel) Hayes and (Ethan) Happ,” said Irish assistant coach Rod Balanis. “Matchups dictate.”
Wisconsin averages 21.2 free-throw attempts per game, which led the Big Ten. It was the second-highest figure posted by the Badgers in the last nine seasons.
The Badgers also led the Big Ten in scoring defense (63.9 ppg.) and turnover percentage (forcing more than one turnover per five possessions). They held 10 teams to their season-low point total. Pittsburgh (43) and Xavier (63) have averaged just 53.0 points in two NCAA tournament games against Wisconsin.
While the Badgers benefit from the volume of free throws they attempt, they converted a modest 69.6 percent in Big Ten play and have made just 60.7 percent (17-of-28) in their two NCAA tournament games.
Struggling the most is one of Wisconsin’s most physically-talented players – 6-foot-9 freshman Ethan Happ – who has converted 63.9 percent on the year on 166 attempts. He’s gotten worse as the season has progressed, making just 58.3 percent in Big Ten play with the same percentage on 12 attempts (seven made) in the NCAA tournament.
Regardless from where 6-foot-8 Nigel Hayes is shooting the ball, he’s struggling, although he’s averaging 15.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He’s made just 36.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and 28.7 percent of his three-pointers, including 0-for-17 the last three games.
Prior to his 6-for-12 three-point shooting in the victory over Xavier, including the game-winner at the buzzer, Bronson Koenig had made just 3-of-17 from long range.
Outside of Koenig’s hot shooting from three-point land against the Musketeers, the rest of the Badgers converted 2-of-15 from beyond the arc. Wisconsin was 4-of-19 from distance in the opening round of the NCAA tournament versus Pittsburgh.
Because the Badgers over-play an opponent’s efforts at lane penetration, they are vulnerable to three-point shooting on kick-out passes. Big Ten opponents converted 38.7 percent of their 279 three-point shots in conference play.
COUNTERBALANCING THE BADGERS
How do you avoid Wisconsin’s sticky half-court defense? Get out in transition.
“You have to try to get down the floor on them and not play against their set defense,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey.
A personnel infusion since the last regular-season game of the year has given Notre Dame more fast-break opportunities.
“One of the things that’s helped us is Matt Farrell in the lineup,” said Brey of the speedy 6-foot-1 point guard. “We have another guy who can push it in transition other than (Demetrius) Jackson.
“Maybe get some easy buckets because if you have to play against (Wisconsin’s) set defense, it becomes kind of a long night.”
A DIFFERENT LOOK
Asked why he went from averaging 7.5 points over the final four regular-season games to 15.7 in the ACC/NCAA tournaments combined, V.J. Beachem did not hesitate.
“Honestly, playing against new opponents,” said Beachem, who has converted 13-of-25 three-pointers (52.0 percent) the last four games.
Beachem has benefitted from adding a completely different dimension to his game. Beginning with the Duke game in the ACC tournament, Beachem has tried to penetrate more while also taking more pull-up jumpers.
Yes, he’s made 13 three-pointers in four post-season games, but he’s also added 11 two-point field goals.
“In the ACC, a lot of teams know me as a shooter,” Beachem said. “I’ve been able to find other ways to get open in post-season.”
NOTRE DAME’S X FACTOR
Heading into the weekend in Brooklyn, the focus was on junior swingman V.J. Beachem, who piggybacked a strong ACC tournament with continued lights-out shooting at the Barclays Center.
But as Beachem has taken his game up a notch, junior captain Steve Vasturia has struggled.
The Philadelphia St. Joseph’s Prep star – who has returned home this weekend – is averaging just 7.4 points per game in his last seven games while converting just 4-of-25 from three-point range.
Brey would like to see Vasturia return to the player for whom he has such great admiration.
“He’s a beautiful basketball player,” Brey said. “I tell young kids, ‘Watch Steve Vasturia play the game.’ His feel for the game, his instincts on both sides of the floor…The guy has made big shot after big shot.
“Where he’s really grown is he’s been a quiet guy. He’s talking more. He’s become more of a captain, and that’s helped us and helped him individually.”
Everything Brey says about Vasturia is true, but Vasturia is going to have to get back into his groove if the Irish are going to advance to Sunday night’s game against the winner of No. 1 seed North Carolina vs. No. 5 seed Indiana.
“We have a couple guys from that area that will have a lot of people there,” said Brey of Vasturia’s Philadelphia connection. “I think it will make them play better.”
• Line: Notre Dame by 1
• Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 65, Wisconsin 62