As soon as the No. 4 Wisconsin vs No. 13 Belmont matchup was announced for the “second” round of the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, college basketball “experts” began to go Charlie Sheen crazy over the pairing.
The proclamations came fast and furious: “Upset!” “Belmont advances!” “Beware of the Bruins!” “More gravy!” (whoops, that last one was me at Old County Buffet).
People are always quick to find some potential upsets upon the reveal of the field of 64 (or 65, or 68) tournament teams. Why? Besides the fact that there’s nothing more boring than an analyst who always picks higher seeds (I’m talking to you, Clark Kellogg. Oh, and you too, President Obama), the obvious answer is there are always at least some upsets come March.
But is Wisconsin a team primed to be upset? Could Belmont be that team to break more brackets than Hampton circa 2001 or George Mason circa 2006?
Let’s look at those questions separately:
Wisconsin is a tenuous No. 4 seed because:
1. Tournament history. Despite being mainstays in the NCAA tournament, appearing in their whopping thirteenth straight big dance in 2011, the Badgers simply don’t fare that well in March.
Since their Elite Eight berth in 2005, Wisconsin is a meh 5-5 in the tournament, and they have been upset by lower seeds three of the last four years. Worse, they have suffered memorable blowouts three of the last five years, losing to Arizona (2006), Davidson (2008) and Cornell (2010) by a combined score of 254-200.
2. Recent play. It’s a cliché as old as “We win as a team, we lose as a team,” “It’s not over until it’s over,” or “REO Speedwagon single-handedly changed the course of American music,” but it’s nonetheless true: Teams have to get hot at the right time.
The Packers got hot in late December and rode that streak to a Super Bowl championship. The Badgers, in contrast, are colder than ticket sales to a Color Me Badd reunion tour, losing by nearly 30 to Ohio State on March 6 and then playing one of the worst offensive games in recent college basketball history against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament.
3. Did I mention points are hard to come by? While the Penn State debacle was not completely indicative of the Badgers’ good overall season, it should be noted that Wisconsin is tied for a lousy 191st in the nation in points per game, and they have been known to go cold in the tourney: Just last year, they barely beat No. 13 Wofford in an ugly 53-49 game, and in 2009 they mustered just 49 points in a second round loss to No. 4 Xavier.
Part of the problem is that after Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor and Keaton Nankivil, the Badgers’ scoring options drop off precipitously, with no one else averaging even six points per game.
Belmont is a scary draw for Wisconsin because:
1. They’re hot. Unlike Wisconsin, the Belmont players have to be brimming with confidence, having won 12 in a row, including a 87-46 beatdown of North Florida in the Atlantic Sun conference title game.
2. They can score. For the 2010-2011 regular season, Belmont ranked a whopping sixth in total points scored.
And for anyone who says that Wisconsin’s defense is good enough to shut down high-powered offenses, just look at the regular season finale against Ohio State (the Buckeyes shot 68 percent from the field and were 14-15 from beyond the arc) and last year’s tournament loss to Cornell (the Big Red shot a big 61 percent against Bucky).
3. They’re deep. Unlike Wisconsin, seven Belmont players score at least six points a game and a massive eleven players average at least 10 minutes a game. In contrast, only seven Badgers average double-digit minutes per outing. That means the Bruins should nearly always be the team on the court with the fresher legs come Thursday night in Tucson.
So will the Badgers prevail? Well, picking Belmont to advance is a bit like casting Betty White in your movie as a foul-mouthed grandmother: Too obvious. Wisconsin has the better defense, is superior at taking care of the ball, has the best two players on the floor in Leuer and Taylor and is by far the more battle-tested team (the Badgers’ strength of schedule for 2010-2011 is 28. The Belmont Bruins’ SOS? 261.)
However, it is fair to point out that with its No. 13 seed, Belmont has received the highest seed for any team from the Atlantic Sun Conference since 2001, when Georgia State earned a No. 11 ranking and beat—who else—the sixth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers.
So will the Atlantic Sun rise again? It’s tempting to think it will. But logically, it seems unlikely.
Final score prediction: Wisconsin 64, Belmont 55.