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Preview: Nova v. No. 8 Wisconsin

By Dave Jarman
On March 18, 2017

Wisconsin center Ethan Happ led the Big Ten in total steals. (Getty Images)

After defeating No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s, Villanova’s next opponent in the second round of the NCAA tournament is the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers, who defeated Virginia Tech in Thursday night’s eight-nine game by a score of 84-74.

Wisconsin comes into Saturday afternoon’s contest with a record of 26-9 and experience. As a program they have made the NCAA Tournament for 19 consecutive seasons.

Their two star players, seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, have played in two Final Four’s, three Sweet 16’s and have knocked off multiple one and two seeds before.

Head Coach Jay Wright knows how great of a team Wisconsin is, despite them having an eight seed.

“They are a great eight seed,” Wright said. “Everywhere in this tournament there are teams that know how to win. We love playing great teams, and we look forward to it.”

Koenig, in particular, is coming off a school record performance against Virginia Tech by hitting eight three pointers, leading all scorers with 28 points. Villanova knows as a team they may need to keep him off the three point line on Saturday.

“We definitely have to find Koenig,” Jalen Brunson said. “He’s a great shooter.”

While the Wildcats need to keep an eye out for Koenig, they can’t ignore Hayes, the Badgers’ 6’8 senior forward. After Thursday night’s 16 point-10 rebound performance against Virginia Tech, he has had three straight double doubles. Wright knows Hayes’ capability and a mismatch he can present on both ends of the court.

“He’s a nightmare matchup,” Wright said. “He’s developed as a passer and a decision maker.  When he first came in he was kind of a rugged, aggressive guy, energy guy. Now, he’s just a complete basketball player. He can drive it, he passes it, he posts up. He’s a great defender on the perimeter and the post.”

Hayes credits his success due to all the experience he’s had over his four years as a Badger.  

“Just that sense of urgency that you have,” Hayes said. “I’ve been fortunate with Bronson to have been on some teams with older guys, and we’ve been fortunate enough to make some long runs.”

In addition to their two seniors, Wisconsin red-shirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ is a big playmaker for the Badgers as well. Happ was in the voting for Big 10 Player of the year and earned first Team All Big 10 honors. Wright is impressed with the 6’10” forward as well.

“He’s got the best hands of any player of his size we’ve played against, and also the best feet,” Wright said. “So, individually, if you look at the best feet or the best hands, he’s got them. And put them together in the same guy, that’s a really tough matchup, in that he scores in the paint, but he passes extremely well out of there. And, he can score all over you, and if you have size on him, he can score around you with his ball handling. He’s a great ball handler and a really tough matchup. What makes him really good is that he can score on you, and he can play like a point guard.”

“It’s pretty scary how I described those two guys and they are on the same team, right?” added Wright.  

One of the reasons why Wisconsin is so successful is the way they run their offense. The Badgers shoot 35.7 percent as a team from three and what makes that work is the tempo of their offense. Unlike Villanova’s offensive tempo, Wisconsin will take almost all the time on the shot clock to find the best shot; which means that their ball movement on offense is a key part to their success.

By working all 30 seconds on the shot clock, it means that Villanova will have to be disciplined on defense. The importance of Villanova getting defensive rebounds cannot be emphasized enough. If Wisconsin shoots the ball with five seconds left on the shot clock and they get the offensive rebound, that means that the Badgers will continue to drain the clock again until they find the open look on offense. Offensive rebounds are so effective for Wisconsin because their style of play can give their opponents physical and mental fatigue on defense.  

On the flip side, similar to Villanova, Wisconsin plays solid defense as well. They only allow 61.5 points per game, which is ninth best in the country. Villanova knows their reputation on defense, and compares Wisconsin to Butler and Seton Hall.

“A team like Seton Hall, Butler, a very tough, physical defensive minded team,” Hart said. “We know that’s how they play. We’ve just got to be aggressive. We can’t second-guess ourselves or get in the paint or break down the defense and not try to score. We got to be aggressive, play Villanova basketball, and let that take care of itself.”

Wisconsin Head Coach Greg Gard believes that his style of defense is similar to Villanova’s.

“I think there’s probably some comparisons between us and Villanova, specifically defensively,” Gard said. “Just watching them, how physical they are, how they do a great job of playing a team-oriented defense. Everybody talks about what Hart and Jenkins and Brunson do offensively and how they run the show. Defensively they’re very good as well.

On the contrary, Wright believes his team and Wisconsin have different styles of defense.

“We play a lot differently defensively than Wisconsin, and we take more chances,” Wright said. “We trap more, we press more. We change up defenses more. They are really solid and physical, and locked in. It’s really different styles, it really is.”

After both coaches emphasizing their defensive styles, expect a low scoring game tomorrow that is going to be a tough, physical battle for 40 minutes at 2:40 on CBS.

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