WASHINGTON – The nation’s only team to have reached the Sweet 16 or better in each of the last three seasons, Wisconsin’s 11 N.C.A.A. tournament wins over that stretch also is tops in the country. The Badgers found out Sunday they’re going to have a tough road ahead if they want to add to that total.
Given no favors by the committee, the Badgers (25-9) received an eight seed and got placed in a challenging region, starting with a first-round match-up with ninth-seed Virginia Tech in Buffalo, N.Y., at approximately 8:40 p.m. CT.
An eight seed is UW’s lowest since being a No.12 in 2009 and one seed lower than last year when the Badgers were 9-9 through their first 18 games. UW is 5-2 as a No.8 seed, however, which includes its magical run to the Final Four in 2000.
This year the Badgers finished second in the Big Ten regular season and tournament but had four conference teams seeded higher than them: No.4 Purdue, No.5 Minnesota, No.6 Maryland and No.7 Michigan.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me right now, but there’s higher-ups that I can’t control,” senior Zak Showalter said. “I just got out and play basketball.”
Virginia Tech (22-10) was an at-large selection from the ACC, which put nine teams into the field to set a new conference record. The Hokies went 3-6 against the RPI Top 25, 5-8 against the Top 50 and 11-9 against the Top 100.
The Hokies’ success is tied to their offense. Virginia Tech is No. 21 in the adjusted offensive efficiency, better than low-seeded teams Baylor, Florida, Florida State, Louisville and Purdue, but the Hokies’ defensive efficiency is 125th (16th-worst in the field). The Hokies rank ninth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (40.9) and 18th in 2-point field goal percentage (54.8).
After the seeds were announced, head coach Greg Gard ran into Michigan coach John Beilein, who complimented the Hokies (Michigan lost 73-70 to the Hokies in Ann Arbor in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge), and Nigel Hayes remembers watching Virginia Tech beat fifth-ranked Duke at home on New Year’s Eve but not much else.
“The coaches do a terrific job (scouting),” Hayes said. “We’ll be well prepared for them.”
While Virginia Tech is not a familiar opponent (UW won the only meeting on the road in 2008), the head coach is.
Buzz Williams took Marquette to the N.C.A.A. tournament five times in six seasons (including three Sweet 16 appearances), but he left Milwaukee to take over a program that hadn’t made the N.C.A.A. tournament since 2007. The Hokies went 11-22 in his first year and made the N.I.T last season before ascending another rung on the ladder this year.
“To be able to be a part of anything that’s first, I think, is always special,” Williams told the Washington Post. “It’s really neat. I probably should be able to articulate it better than that, but those are kids that have dreamed their whole life of having this opportunity, and you know, along the path of pushing them farther than they’re typically willing to be pushed, you’re trying to explain — this is why.”
The Hokies have four players averaging double figures: junior forward Zach LeDay (16.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) senior guard Seth Allen (13.4 ppg, 45.1 percent 3-point shooter), sophomore guard Ahmed Hill (11.6 ppg) and sophomore guard Justin Robinson (10.3 ppg, 4.8 apg, 0.7 spg).
The Hokies are 5-3 since sophomore guard Chris Clarke (11.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.3 apg) tore his ACL in a double overtime win over Virginia.
“As I told the team after the game, we talked about a few things that happened (Sunday), we’ve got to quickly get past this and get ready for what’s next,” Gard said. “Whether we won or lost, we’ve got to quickly move on. The team you play doesn’t care what you did on the weekend.”
If the Badgers get past the Hokies, Wisconsin will likely face defending national champion and overall number one seed Villanova. Duke, Baylor, Florida and Virginia also loom in their East Region.
Wisconsin is making its 19th-consecutive trip to the tournament, the fourth-longest active streak and the fifth-longest in the history of the tournament. The Badgers have also advanced to the Sweet 16 or better in five of the last six years and nine times since 2000.
“I think we’ve been lucky to always pretty much know that we’re going to be in the tournament,” Showalter said. “You almost take it for granted sometimes and you can’t do that. You have to appreciate what you’re given and make the most of it.”
While the locker room was melancholy, the staff and players universally agreed that the group played really well in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals and the semifinals and repeating that performance could mean another sustained tournament run.
Another outing like Sunday, however, and the Badgers head into the offseason needing to replace 80 percent of their starting lineup.
“I think we got confidence back,” Showalter said. “Obviously this one hurts, but I think we saw how we’re capable of playing when we put it together.”