As a fan of the Chicago Bears, I have been burned countless times by that team from Wisconsin that shall not be referenced by name. NFC Championship, a few years back, I sat in the South end zone at Soldier Field watching Caleb freaking Hanie attempt to lead the Bears to a comeback victory. What is my lasting memory from that game? B.J. Raji waltzing into the end zone right towards me for a touchdown to put the Bears out of their misery, and obnoxious cheeseheads behind me clamoring about going to the Super Bowl. So yeah, I badly want the Irish to take down the Badgers to help ease the pain from that defeat.
Notre Dame and Wisconsin both had similar season arcs, as they struggled out of the gate (Wisconsin a bit more than the Irish), had nice stretches midway through conference play, and then limped into the NCAA Tournament. Both have been tested in each game during the first two rounds in the tournament and pulled off improbable wins on last second buckets in Round 2. Certainly, this game is expected to go down to the wire as the Irish are the slightest of favorites.
Let’s break it down, tell you what you need to know about the Badgers, and discuss the keys to an Irish victory.
How is Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 after a 9-9 start?
I’ve probably watched Wisconsin 4-5 times this year, once before Bo Ryan retired (in a loss to Milwaukee), and a couple times during the Greg Gard era. One important difference that I have noticed…Gard seems to use his bench a lot more than Ryan did early in the season. While that may not be the main reason for the Badgers’ resurgence, comparing the Milwaukee box score with the Xavier box score shows that there may be something to the increased use of the bench.
Against Milwaukee, Ryan played 7 players, with all the starters playing at least 33 minutes and the bench totaling 17 minutes. Gard played 9 players in the Round 2 victory over Xavier, with the bench totaling 47 minutes. Jordan Hill did not play in the loss to Milwaukee and only played 27 minutes in Wisconsin’s first 12 games. Hill has turned into an important player off the bench, and played 21 minutes against Xavier.
Okay, enough about the bench. We all were impressed by Bronson Koenig’s double onions to shock Xavier. The triple to tie it was from deep, and the corner fadeaway three was just absurd. While he deserves all the credit in the world for hitting those shots, Koenig loves the “glory hog” three at the end of the game and has missed those shots more often than not. He’s a good, but not great, player who has an awfully tough matchup trying to score against DJ (though Koenig probably won’t guard him on the other end).
For the majority of the season, Nigel Hayes has been Bucky’s best player, but he is mired in an epic slump. For the season, Hayes averages 16 points per game, on 37% FG and 28.7% from deep…which seems like an odd stat line until you realize that he gets to the line over 7 times per game. In three postseason games, Hayes is 7-42 from the floor and 0-17 from three. That’s simply awful, and should cause some concern for Irish fans because he is 6’8, with some beef, and is a tough matchup for the lineup that the Irish are going to want to throw out there.
Ethan Happ is probably the most consistent player on Wisconsin, as a redshirt freshman. He has a solid low-post game and gets a bunch of buckets due to his hustle. You have to be pretty darn good to average 12 and 8 in your first season of college basketball. In the first two tournament games, he is averaging 16 and 8. Can he stop Auguste? Well, maybe I should ask…can Auguste stop him?
Zak Showalter is the hustle guy. If he were on Duke, we all would despise him. He’ll attempt to take at least five charges, and probably will get a couple bogus ones. The last starter for the Badgers is Vitto Brown, another 6’8 guy who is in love with the outside jumper.
Five interesting stats to impress your buddies
1. Both these teams stress taking care of the basketball. Obviously, ND has been turning the ball over way too much lately, but they still only turn it over 10 times per game (6th in the nation in the regular season). Wisconsin is typically in the Top 10 in fewest TOs per game, but they were 32nd this year (11 per game).
2. The two most consistent players for ND in March have clearly been Auguste and Beachem. In the last five games, Auguste is averaging 15 and 14. Beach is averaging 16.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg in the first two NCAA tournament games, and is shooting 50% from deep in his last five.
3. In six NCAA tournament games the last two years, Auguste is 40-54 from the field (74.1%). That’s excellent.
4. Wisconsin is 11th in defensive efficiency, while the Irish are 9th in offensive efficiency. Strength vs. Strength.
5. ND and Wisconsin have played seven common opponents:
*Indiana – ND lost in Indy by 7, Wisconsin split with the Hoosiers
*Iowa – ND won by 4 in Orlando, Wisconsin won at Iowa
*Illinois – Both took care of business against the Illini
*Michigan – Ditto with the Wolverines
*Syracuse – The Irish were pummeled at the Carrier Dome, while Wisconsin won there when both teams were dumpster fires
*Pittsburgh – Oddly Pitt couldn’t miss when they won at ND, while Wisconsin held them to 43 points in the 1st round
*Milwaukee – ND beat the Panthers, while Wisconsin lost to them at home
How do the Irish match up?
Well, with the same starting lineup as the first two NCAA Tournament games, the Irish are a bit small compared to the Badgers. Brey said at his presser yesterday that he wants the Irish to play fast, so this game is going to be about who can establish the tempo they want. It certainly sounds like Matt Farrell is going to get a bunch of run again. If the Irish can get the game up and down, you’ll see Wisconsin try to match them with a smaller lineup. If Wisconsin slows it to a snail’s pace, then ND will have to go big.
Hayes, Happ and Brown are all 6’8 or taller, which poses a problem for the current starting lineup that is playing Beachem (a guard although he is 6’8) at the 4. This really seems like a Bonz game, and I think he is going to need to play 20-25 minutes to counter Wisconsin’s size. Yeah, Hayes and Brown like to play on the perimeter, but Vasturia on Hayes for the majority of the game is a mismatch, especially if Hayes attempts to break out of his slump by getting a couple early baskets inside.
Wisconsin does not have anyone to guard Demetrius, if he decides to be aggressive. So here’s my plea: DEMETRIUS, PLEASE TAKE THE BALL TO THE BASKET! Hopefully, he takes more than two shots in the first half tonight. Also, Vasturia’s driving ability could play a huge role in getting Hayes into foul trouble. This seems like the perfect game for these two to put together solid efforts, especially with Stove at home in Philly.
The main key to this one, in my opinion, is the matchup between Auguste and Happ. I would get ZA involved early and often, and make Happ guard the pick and roll. If Zach can get Happ into foul trouble, then Wisconsin is in serious trouble. There is no question that Happ is a capable player, but Auguste is on an absolute tear right now. Double-double #22 is on the horizon.
Prediction: Irish 72 Badgers 63
I think this is the game that everything clicks for the Irish in a game they control from the outset, similar to last year’s Sweet 16 win over 7 seed Wichita State. Auguste and Bonz especially dominate the Badgers inside, combining for 25 points and 20 rebounds. Bring it home, men.