Yes, Virginia, there was a No. 4 seed that went down in defeat during Thursday’s so-called “second round” of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
But unlike many of the pundits had predicted, the No. 4 seed sent home early was not Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers, but Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, a team most had going to at least the Sweet 16.
In fact, Wisconsin, in beating up on the Belmont Bruins 72-58, had by far the most comfortable win of the three victorious No. 4 seeds; Texas beat Oakland by just four points while Kentucky needed a layup with two seconds left in regulation to squeeze out a two-point victory over Princeton.
Should Badger fans take Wisconsin’s show of dominance in its first game as a sign that the team will make a deep run this year—or at least survive into the tournament’s second weekend, which they haven’t done since 2008?
Or will the Badgers find themselves, as they have the last two seasons, ousted in their second game?
History is on Bucky’s side: The last time Wisconsin got off to such a strong start—in 2008, when the No. 3 Badgers defeated No. 14 Cal State Fullerton by 15—they then earned a trip to the Sweet 16 by beating Kansas State 72-55 in the tournament’s second round.
And who stands in the Badgers’ way of another trip to the regional semifinals? None other than Frank Martin’s Kansas State Wildcats, a No. 5 seed that narrowly avoided being upset by No. 12 Utah State 73-68 Thursday night.
So can Wisconsin knock out the Wildcats in the tournament for the second time in four years?
Wisconsin can advance if:
1. They play defense like they played Thursday night. Facing Belmont in the “second round” was scary for Badger fans because the Bruins ranked a whopping sixth in college basketball in points scored and the Badger faithful were still smarting from the 93 points Ohio State laid on Wisconsin in their regular season finale.
But the Badgers swarmed the Bruins all night, forcing the Atlantic Sun champs to shoot a paltry 37 percent from the floor and a lousy 6-of-22 from three-point land as Belmont put up their lowest point total of the season.
2. Everybody comes to the party. Yes, Jordan Taylor (mostly in the first half) and Jon Leuer (mostly in the second half) dominated against Belmont, scoring nearly 60 percent of the Badgers’ points. But contributions extended beyond that, mainly from Mike Bruesewitz, who had a great game with eight timely points and a career-best nine rebounds, and Jared Berggren, who added two three-pointers.
To beat the No. 5 Wildcats, Leuer and Taylor will need similar help from their teammates, and a better showing from Keaton Nankivil (only two buckets in 23 minutes of work) will be necessary.
3. They take care of the ball. Despite the victory, Thursday night’s game was ugly early, with neither team out of double figures until nearly halfway through the first period. The prime factor in Wisconsin’s early struggles was turnovers: The team committed an uncharacteristic 14 of them, doubling their regular season per-game total.
The Badgers were fortunate that the Bruins could not turn more of those early turnovers into points; if they had, Wisconsin might have dug itself an early hole it couldn’t have gotten out of.
Kansas State can advance if:
1. They hit their free throws. Let’s face it: A tournament game between teams seeded fourth and fifth should be close, and typically the Badgers don’t score enough points to blow teams out.
Kansas State was terrible in the regular season from the free throw line, connecting on only 64 percent of their attempts. But it was their free throw shooting that saved them Thursday night against Utah State, as they made 24-of-28 attempts and 9-of-10 in the final 1:08. They don’t hit those shots, and Wisconsin is taking on Utah State Friday night.
2. Jacob Pullen has a better game than Jordan Taylor. One reason why (in hindsight, anyway) the potential for a Belmont upset Thursday night seemed at least a little far-fetched was the simple fact that Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor were the two best players on either team.
That’s debatable for Friday night, as Kansas State features Jacob Pullen, a senior guard who averages nearly 20 points a game. He continued his superb play Thursday with 22 points, five assists and 9-of-12 free throw shooting—and he did that while playing with the flu. If Pullen gets on a roll, he can nearly singlehandedly lead the Wildcats to victory.
3. Head coach Frank Martin shows up. Have you seen this guy? He has more intensity in his big toe than former Milwaukee Brewers' manager Ken Macha has in his body. One “death stare” from him, and any player on any college basketball team should be motivated to go out and have the game of his life.
So who wins? The Badgers have the better talent, the better defense and should be feeling very confident after their impressive win Thursday night. On the other hand, their opponent in the first round was probably a little overhyped. Emerging from the Big 12 and not the Atlantic Sun, Kansas State is a more worthy adversary. The Badgers will have to play a cleaner game and spread the scoring out a little more, both very attainable goals.
Final score prediction: Wisconsin 66, Kansas State 60.
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