X Factors to Watch in Wisconsin vs. American NCAA Tournament Matchup
Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Wisconsin Badgers could not have asked for a much better draw than the one they received in the West Region, and it begins with playing American University in their own backyard.
The No. 2-seeded Badgers (26-7) will get to play at least one—conceivably two—games in Milwaukee thanks to a stellar season that resulted in a second-place finish in the Big Ten and winning streaks of both 16 and eight games. But as we've seen in the past, Wisconsin can have trouble in the round of 64 despite the level of competition, and that's why the Eagles (20-12) can't be viewed as a pushover.
American earned its way into the tournament by defeating Boston University and winning the Patriot League Tournament. Not only did the Eagles win it, but they dismantled the Terriers, winning 55-36 on Boston's home court.
Sometimes, the NCAA Tournament can be all about X-factors—players that don't receive much recognition throughout the season, but shine when the lights are brightest, propelling their team to a deep tourney run.
Which X-factors could lead to either one of the biggest upsets in tourney history, or allow the No. 2-seeded Badgers to coast to a round of 64 victory?
The Badgers' prized 2013 recruit out of Ohio may have taken a backseat to Indiana's Noah Vonleh in the Big Ten freshman of the year race, but Nigel Hayes still managed to take home the Sixth Man of the Year award, an impressive feat for a first-year player.
When Wisconsin went through its stretch of losing five of six games, Hayes was the go-to option on offense. There might not be a better player around at drawing fouls, but then it comes down to knocking down shots from the charity stripe, something Hayes does at just a 58.6 percent rate.
Hayes is an extremely important player coming off the bench for the Badgers, as he is almost exclusively asked to spell either Frank Kamisky or Sam Dekker and can be used in three-forward sets as well. He averaged 8.0 points and 2.8 rebounds per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the field.
As is typical on a Bo Ryan-coached team, Wisconsin will sometimes only go seven-deep, but it still holds an advantage against many opponents' benches thanks to having a player of Hayes' caliber.
While all five Badgers starters averaged double digit points at times this season, American had four starters average over 11 points per game during the regular season. One of those players was junior guard John Schoof, who was fourth on the squad with 11.4 points per game.
What makes Schoof dangerous is his shooting ability from beyond the arc. While he's a bit of a one-trick pony in that regard—well over 50 percent of his shot attempts were from three-point territory—he knocks down threes at a 38.4 percent clip.
We've all seen it. A low seed takes down a high seed because someone gets hot, specifically from the three-point line, something that can be difficult to defend no matter how much pressure you put on the shooter.
The Badgers, especially in the tournament, have fallen victim to this fad in recent years. Since it's unlikely Wisconsin will pin its best defender, Josh Gasser, on Schoof, that could allow the junior guard to heat up against the rest of the Badgers' suspect defense.
One of the two prominent players that come off the bench to spell Wisconsin's starters, freshman guard Bronson Koenig has had a steady role all season long for the Badgers. The team doesn't miss a beat on offense when he enters the game.
In fact, they may even get better.
And it's not because of his scoring prowess, although he has the ability to put points on the board—he's averaging just 3.2 points per game this season. Koenig has an uncanny ability to find open teammates and has excellent court vision for a first-year player.
It's on the defensive end where Koenig needs to improve, and that, along with the strong depth at guard, is what keeps him from playing more than 15 to 20 minutes a game.
But against a team that likes to be deliberate on offense—American runs the Princeton offense and slows down the pace, having someone like Koenig pushing the ball out in transition could result in some quick baskets. Transition offense could make American uncomfortable and allow Wisconsin to open up a big lead early.
Somebody who has a similar impact to Koenig's on the game from American's side would be sophomore guard Marko Vasic.
Vasic rebounds well for a guard and picks his spots wisely as a shooter. He's at his best when he avoids shooting from afar; Vasic hits 65 percent of his shot attempts that aren't from three-point distance.
He's the one player you can count on to come off the bench for the Eagles and have a positive impact game in and game out, whether it's because of his ability to defend or not hurt his team on the offensive end.
The Serb will certainly see his role increase next season, and considering how we've seen players of European decent in the lower levels of college basket make some noise in the tournament, don't be surprised to see Vasic make his presence felt against the Badgers on Thursday.
If you want to pinpoint the unsung hero for the Badgers this season, look no further than junior guard Josh Gasser.
After being forced to redshirt last season because of a torn ACL suffered in the preseason, Gasser hasn't lost a step, as evidenced by his all-Big Ten defensive performance during the 2013-14 season. He's taken more of a backseat on offense because of players like Frank Kamisky, Ben Brust and Sam Dekker, but that doesn't mean Gasser is someone to take lightly on the offensive end.
Gasser is more of a facilitator, but nobody on the team—even Brust—shoots it better from beyond the arc for Wisconsin than the fourth-year junior. He is converting on over 44 percent of his attempts from three and is third on the team in three-point attempts with 97.
Gasser definitely isn't an X-factor on defense, as he will likely spend most of his time on the floor against American guarding Jesse Reed, the Eagles' leading scorer. But with so many other players to account for on the offensive end for Wisconsin, Gasser could really sneak up on American.
Probably the most famous No. 15 seed to ever make its mark on the NCAA Tournament, Florida Gulf Coast shocked the nation by advancing to the Sweet 16 just one year ago.
American could not be more of a polar opposite.
To each their own, but the Eagles play at one of the slowest paces in Division I basketball, something Wisconsin fans have become plenty used to over the past two decades thanks to Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan. The Badgers can play that game, but this year, they have perhaps their best offensive team in school history.
American's defense is stingy and allows the eighth-fewest points at 58.6 per game. But the Badgers will be able to put up points while playing in front of what should be the equivalent of a home crowd in Milwaukee.
Wisconsin isn't as good defensively this season, but the Eagles will still struggle to put up points, as the Badgers will be more comfortable defending against a slow pace in the half court rather than a team that's constantly pushing the ball in transition.
The Eagles only faced one RPI top 50 team all season, and it resulted in an 11-point loss at Ohio State. Wisconsin should roll in the Round of 64 and advance to play either Oregon or BYU.
Prediction: Wisconsin 75, American 57