Making the N.C.A.A. tournament has become an expectation for Wisconsin. Having made the tournament field for 19 straight seasons, Wisconsin will begin competition tomorrow in the East Region as a No.8 seed against No. 9 Virginia Tech inside the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
While Wisconsin has become a mainstay in the tournament, Virginia Tech will be making only its ninth appearance in the tournament and the first since 2007. The Hokies should be well rested entering Thursday, having a week off since losing to Florida State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. Virginia Tech has also had success against the Big Ten this season, beating Nebraska and Michigan in nonconference play.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (25-9, 12-6 Big Ten) as it strives to win its first-round matchup against Virginia Tech (22-10, 10-8 ACC).
LAY UP: REBOUNDING FROM SUNDAY’S SECOND HALF
Wisconsin’s shot 47.4 percent from the field in its Big Ten tournament wins over Indiana and Northwestern and 53.8 percent (14-for-26) from the field in the first half against Michigan, but the Badgers couldn’t sustain their offensive flow in the second half Sunday.
Michigan was able to disrupt Wisconsin on offense and hold them without a field goal for over eight minutes to begin the second half. That scoring drought was a snapshot of the shooting struggles, as the Badgers went 8-for-30 (26.6 percent) from the field in the loss to the Wolverines.
If Wisconsin wants to move on to the round of 32, the Badgers can’t revert back to the way their offense functioned in February, when it shot just 40.1 percent (161-for-401) from the field. One reason why Wisconsin struggled offensively in the second half was due in part to the nine second-half turnovers against Michigan, making it important that Wisconsin finds a way to take care of the ball.
The Badgers averaged eight turnovers over their first two Big Ten tournament games but nearly doubled that with 15 against the Wolverines. It shouldn’t be surprising that when Wisconsin struggles to take care of the ball, it prevents the ability to establish an offensive flow. In the four games the Badgers committed double digit turnovers in February, they shot an average of 38.1 percent from the field and averaged 12.2 turnovers. In the three games where Wisconsin committed single digit turnovers, averaging 7.6 per game, the Badgers shot an average of 42.7 percent.
The Hokies only force an average of 10.6 turnovers a game, which tied for 13th over ACC play, and just 3.6 steals per game. Averaging 11 turnovers a game, Wisconsin having better ball security is a must.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: CAN WISCONSIN STRIKE A BALANCE ON OFFENSE?
Ethan Happ said Sunday that when Badgers are relying on jump shots due to the inability to finish inside, Wisconsin doesn’t have a recipe to win. While Wisconsin wasn’t able to create a balance in the championship game, the Badgers did show how dangerous of a team in can be with their victories the two previous days.
Wisconsin averaged 24 points in the paint during its tournament stay, including a tournament-high 28 points in the loss to Michigan. Due to the success Wisconsin was able to have in the paint, the Badgers were able to create the space they needed to have success from 3-point range, shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc on an average of 22 attempts. Having success around the rim should lead to generating success from three, as the Hokies allowed opposing ACC teams to shoot 40.8 percent from the perimeter.
The Hokies allowed 8.3 3-pointers a game over conference play, meaning effective ball movement should allow Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and D'Mitrik Trice the chance to catch and shoot. In particular, Koenig had a decent conference tournament with his perimeter shooting, going 4-for-7 against Indiana, 2-for-9 against Northwestern and 3-for-6 against Michigan.
In order to create the opportunities to take advantage of Virginia Tech’s 3-point defense, Wisconsin’s frontcourt needs to be active around the basket. Over the last five games Virginia Tech has allowed 31.2 points in the paint, and the Hokies are coming off the game in which they allowing Florida State to register 42 points down low. The Hokies also weren’t able to consistently contest shots over conference play, only averaging 2.7 blocks a game, meaning Happ has to have success converting shots to create the spacing Wisconsin needs.
Even if Wisconsin can’t generate a scoring opportunity in the paint, it will be important that Wisconsin keeps possessions alive against a Hokies team that allowed about 11 offensive rebounds a game over ACC play. Wisconsin averaged 12.8 second-chance points over the last six games and will have a chance to surpass that number against the Hokies’ undersized lineup.
3-POINTER: CAN WISCONSIN DEFEND THE THREE-POINT LINE?
Wisconsin’s defense has been solid this season, finishing first in the Big Ten and ninth in the country in allowing only 61.4 points per game. The same cannot be said about the Badgers shutting down the 3-point line, which could mean bad news against a Virginia Tech team that ranks 13th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage (40.3 percent). The Badgers have faced two teams who rank in the top 12 nationally in that category in Marquette (first at 43 percent) and Purdue (seventh at 40.6 percent). Wisconsin’s defense allowed Marquette to shoot 45.5 percent from three on 22 attempts and Purdue shot 46.7 percent from three on 15 attempts.
Virginia Tech makes an average of 8.6 threes a game and shot an ACC-best 41.4 percent from three in conference play. After allowing conference opponents to shoot 40.4 percent from three, the Badgers can’t afford to allow the Hokies to generate a rhythm by allowing them to create open looks from the perimeter or mismatches against Wisconsin’s defense.
Wisconsin held opponents to shoot 37.2 percent (22-for-59) from three in the Big Ten tournament, but that number is helped by the fact that Northwestern went 3-for-14 (21.4 percent). In the two other games Wisconsin allowed Indiana to shoot 40.9 percent and Michigan to hit 43.5 percent.
Wisconsin’s defense is going to need to be cognizant of where Justin Bibbs (9.2 points per game) is when he’s on the court, as Bibbs ranked fourth in ACC play by making 45.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. Bibbs averaged five 3-point attempts over conference play and will enter the game against Wisconsin on a streak of 15 straight games of making at least one 3-pointer (he made at least three in eight of those games).
The Badgers will also need to pay attention to Seth Allen and his 13.4 points per game. Second on the team in scoring to Zach LeDay (16.3 points per game), Allen shot 47.7 percent (31-for-65) from three over conference play, scored in double figures in eight of the last 10 games and made at least one three in eight of the last nine games.
One way to prevent the Hokies from getting off multiple 3-point attempts is being active on the glass. Virginia Tech was last in the ACC at 5.8 offensive rebounds a game, and Wisconsin has held opponents to fewer than nine offensive rebounds six times in the last 10 games. In order for Wisconsin to control the game, the Badgers can’t allow the Hokies to simply be able to catch and shoot from the perimeter. Failure to track shooters, switch screens and get a hand up could allow the Hokies to make the Badgers pay for their defensive lapse.