Virginia Tech is returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years. The Hokies are a 9-seed in the East Region, and they’ll take on 8-seed Wisconsin on Thursday night. The winner will get to play the No. 1 overall seed Villanova on Saturday, barring the first No. 16 vs. No. 1 upset in tournament history.
Every year, many fan bases will complain about their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin has a legitimate reason to do that this year. In fact, I think both the Badgers and the Hokies have a better resume than South Carolina, who is the 7-seed in the East Region. Here’s a comparison between the three schools…
RPI: No. 36
SOS: No. 71
NC SOS: No. 276
vs. Top-50: 4-6
vs. 51-100: 9-3
vs. 101-200: 7-0
vs. 201+: 5-0
RPI: No. 43
SOS: No. 43
NC SOS: No. 65
vs. Top-50: 4-5
vs. 51-100: 7-4
vs. 101-200: 5-1
vs. 201+: 5-0
RPI: No. 48
SOS: No. 66
NC SOS: No. 288
vs. Top 50: 5-8
vs. 51-100: 6-1
vs. 101-200: 3-1
vs. 201+: 8-0
Tech and Wisconsin both had more quality wins than South Carolina, and one of the Gamecocks’ top 50 wins came against Monmouth…a team that ended up as a 4-seed in the NIT. I think the Selection Committee put too big an emphasis on non-conference strength of schedule, which is basically the only area where South Carolina outperformed the Hokies and Badgers. Personally, I would have had Wisconsin as a 6 or 7-seed, with South Carolina as a 9-seed, but that’s just me. The Selection Committee has a tough job and they are going to make somebody mad no matter what they do.
Some are complaining that the committee put Tech in a bad spot because of Wisconsin’s low seeding (most people projected the Badgers as a 6-seed). They say the Hokies have a hard matchup in round one. I’m sympathetic to that point of view but at the same time, it’s the NCAA Tournament. Everybody is good. I’ll steal a line from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard then everybody would do it. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.”
Hanks’ character Jimmy Duggan was talking about baseball, but the exact same line can be applied to the NCAA Tournament. And while it’s true that Wisconsin will be tough, everything I’ve seen this year also leads me to believe that Virginia Tech will be tough for Wisconsin as well.
The Badgers are coming off a 25-9 season in which they advanced all the way to the Big Ten Tournament finals where they fell to Michigan 71-56. They have Top-50 wins over No. 20 Minnesota (twice), No. 25 Michigan and No. 34 Maryland. All of those games came at home. Their best neutral site win came against No. 51 Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament and their best road win came at No. 64 Marquette. All four of those wins were against NCAA Tournament teams.
Wisconsin is also a team with no bad losses. Their worst defeat of the season was at No. 90 Ohio State on February 23.
This is a Badger team that is very experienced in the NCAA Tournament. They have been to the Big Dance 19 times in a row, tied for the fourth longest streak in the country. They’ve been to the Final Four three times in that span, and they lost to Duke in the NCAA Tournament Finals two years ago. You won’t find many teams with more postseason experience than Wisconsin.
Wisconsin native Greg Gard is the head coach. He’s coached in his home state his entire life…
1993-99: Wisconsin-Platteville (assistant)
1999-01: Milwaukee (assistant)
2001-15: Wisconsin (assistant)
2015-17: Wisconsin (head coach)
Gard took the Badgers to the Sweet 16 last year in his first season, and they are hoping for another postseason run this year. He has a roster full of players with postseason experience, including some key guys who played for the National Championship two seasons ago.
G Bronson Koenig (6-foot-3, 190-pounds, Sr.): 14.1 ppg, 89.8 percent free throw shooter. A big part of the Wisconsin team that made a deep run two years ago.
F Ethan Happ (6-foot-10, 232-pounds, r-So.): 13.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 95 assists, 63 steals, 38 blocks. Last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Not many guys can fill up the stat sheet like Happ.
F Nigel Hayes (6-foot-8, 240-pounds, Sr.): 13.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 94 assists. Like Happ, Hayes is a very good passer. Those two players lead the team in assists by a mile.
G Zak Showalter (6-foot-3, 190-pounds, r-Sr.): 8.3 ppg, 39.7 percent three-point shooter, 83 percent free throw shooter.
F Vitto Brown (6-foot-8, 235-pounds, Sr.): 6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg.
Those five players will likely get the start on Thursday night. The Badgers will generally play three players off the bench, with two main contributors…
G D’Mitrik Trice (6-foot-0, 178-pounds, Fr.): 5.9 ppg, 59 assists. Trice is probably Wisconsin’s top distributor among their guards.
G Khalil Iverson (6-foot-5, 212-pounds, So.): 3.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg.
Wisconsin has several major strengths that will be difficult for the Hokies to match up with.
Experience —The Badgers have four senior starters, all with plenty of postseason experience.
Size and skill at forward — Wisconsin has two big guys who can score, rebound and pass.
Defensive efficiency and pace — Wisconsin slows it down, and they are No. 16 in defensive efficiency.
However, the Badgers do have a couple of weaknesses that could be taken advantage of. As skilled as Hayes and Happ are, they are not good free throw shooters, and they go to the line a lot. Happ is 76-of-152 (50 percent) on the season, while Hayes is 117-of-200 (58.5 percent). Everybody else is a good to great free throw shooter, but those two guys drag the team percentage down to 64.4 percent. Unfortunately, the Hokies don’t have much post depth, so they can’t afford to get into foul trouble.
Wisconsin has struggled with 3-point defense, despite their overall defensive efficiency. They are 305th in the country in opposing three-point percentage, allowing opponents to connect on 37.7 percent of their outside jumpers. The Hokies are ninth in the country in three-point percentage at 40.3 percent. The numbers suggest that Tech will have some open looks on Thursday night.
Though Buzz Williams has yet to coach against Greg Gard head-to-head, he’s very familiar with the Wisconsin style of play. Marquette played their in-state rivals every year that Buzz Williams was at Marquette, and the two schools split those six games. Wisconsin’s X’s and O’s won’t be new to Williams, assistant coach Jamie McNeilly or Director of Basketball Operations Jeff Reynolds, and their style of player is similar to Virginia, as Tony Bennett was an assistant at Wisconsin from 1999 through 2003.
The Hokies have won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament in five of their previous eight appearances, including the last two.
1967: The Hokies went to the round of eight in a 23-team field.
1976: Eliminated in the first round by Western Michigan in a 32-team field.
1979: Eliminated in the second round by 1-seed Indiana State and Larry Bird.
1980: Eliminated in the second round by 2-seed Indiana.
1985: Eliminated in the first round by 8-seed Temple.
1986: Eliminated in the first round by 10-seed Villanova.
1996: Eliminated in the second round by 1-seed Kentucky.
2007: Eliminated in the second round by 4-seed Southern Illinois.
Overall, the Hokies have advanced to the second round in four of their last six trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday night’s game will be broadcast at approximately 9:40 p.m. and it will be televised nationally by CBS.