Coming off back-to-back final four appearances including a runner-up finish to Duke last season, the Wisconsin Badgers seemed to have no business making an 18th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament after just a 7-5 start and retirement of their long time head coach Bo Ryan. Greg Gard took over and led the Badgers to a 13-6 record the rest of the way and yet another 20-win season with a top four finish in the Big Ten Conference. Despite an early exit in the Big Ten tournament to Nebraska, the Badgers had done enough to earn a 7-seed and another opportunity to make a run.
In the midst of arguably the best opening weekend of games in NCAA tournament history, Wisconsin had a typical Badger-like performance in their first round matchup against 10-seeded Pittsburgh in the East Region. It may have been one of the ugliest games of the tournament so far, but at this time of year it’s all about surviving and advancing. Facing a pesky ACC opponent, the Badgers overcame a lousy shooting performance to squeeze by Jamie Dixon’s Panthers 47-43 in St. Louis Friday night.
Wisconsin’s usual suspects of juniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig struggled to all game long going a combined 4-25 from the field. Hayes finished with 12 points on 3-17 shooting including 0-6 from three and Koenig had just two points on 1-8 shooting while failing to make three pointer for the first time in 44 games going 0-2 from beyond the arc.
Instead, the Badgers turned to Big Ten freshman of the year Ethan Happ and junior Vitto Brown to lift them. Happ, a 6’9 forward playing in his first NCAA tournament, scored a game-high 15 points with 12 coming in the second half while grabbing nine rebounds including a crucial one late off a missed layup from Pitt’s James Robinson in the final seconds to help seal the victory. Brown, who hadn’t made a three in his career until this season, added 11 points while knocking down three crucial threes in big moments for the Badgers.
It was definitely one of the hardest games to watch if you were a fan of either team as both relied on their stingy defense to keep things close. Pitt had the early advantage going up 13-3 early. Wisconsin, who missed 13 of its first 15 shots, got their first field goal at the 16-minute mark off a three-pointer from Zak Showalter, and didn’t get their second until a Happ layup at the 11-minute mark. Trailing 22-13 with only 37 seconds left in the first half, Vitto Brown drilled his first three-pointer to cut Pitt’s lead to 22-16 at the break.
Wisconsin grabbed their first lead at 25-24 with 15:55 left in the game on a one-handed baseline flush from Happ, who scored seven of the teams first nine points in the second half. After a quick 8-2 Panther run, the Badgers responded back with an 11-4 run of their own with Hayes finally getting a couple buckets and Brown hitting his second three-pointer of the game to take a 38-36 lead. Jamel Artis, who led the Panthers with 13 points, drilled a three to take the lead right back at 39-38 on the next possession, but the Badgers took the lead back for good at 42-40 after Brown knocked down his third and final three with 2:37 remaining.
Wisconsin had a two-possession lead at 44-40 before Artis cut the lead to one with his third three-point make. Pitt had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds after a horribly missed shot by Hayes, but James Robinson ran into his own teammate on the other end and failed to come through in front of his bench. Happ and Hayes solidified the win at the free throw line for the Badgers, who have now won nine of its last 10 NCAA openers.
Here are some highlights.
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) March 19, 2016
To put this win in perspective for the Badgers, it was fewest points scored by a winning team in the NCAA tournament since 2003 when Butler topped Mississippi State 47-46 in the first round, according to ESPN and STATS. Ironically, it was also the second fewest combined points in an NCAA tournament game since Southwest Missouri State beat Wisconsin 43-32 back in 1999.
Wisconsin’s 47 points was the third lowest scoring output of any team during the first two days of tournament as 16-seeded Hampton had just 45 in their 81-45 loss to 1-seeded Virginia on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh outshot Wisconsin 37.5% (18-48) to just 32.1% (17-53) from the field including 27.3% (3-11) to 21.1% (4-19) from beyond the arc. It was the Badgers experience and discipline on the defensive end that helped them prevail as they forced 10 Panther turnovers with six coming off steals.
The 21-12 Badgers breathed a little sigh of relief getting past the 10-seeded Panthers, but now face an uphill battle against the much tougher 2-seeded Xavier Musketeers out of the Big East on Sunday night.
Xavier, 28-5, got past 15-seeded Weber State 71-53 Friday night. They never trailed and pulled away late behind the duo of senior forward James Farr and junior forward Jalen Reynolds. Farr led the Musketeers with 18 points and 15 rebounds off the bench while Reynolds finished with 12 points on 6-9 shooting. Trevon Bluiett, a 6’6 sophmore guard, finished with 10 points and has been the leader all season for Xavier averaging 15.3 points per game.
Wisconsin, who comes in scoring just 68 points per game, understands they will need to come out and score the basketball much better than they did Friday night in order to keep with Xavier, who comes in scoring 81 points per game. The Badgers hope their stingy defense can hold up and keep this game as low scoring as possible.
Also, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig need to simply play better. The two juniors have struggled mightily in the last couple games stemming back to Wisconsin’s Big Ten tournament loss to Nebraska. Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown may have saved them in round one, but they will need to be more efficient in order for the Badgers to advance to the sweet 16.
These two teams have played once before in the NCAA tournament dating back to 2009 with the Musketeers prevailing 60-49 in a second round matchup.
Tip-off for Sunday night’s game in St. Louis will be around 7:40 p.m. Central and can be seen on TNT or through the March Madness Live app on computer or smart phone devices.