Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Record: (26-9 overall, 12-6 conference)
Key players: Senior guard Bronson Koenig (14.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .417 FG%, .393 3P%), sophomore forward Ethan Happ (13.8 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.8 SPG, .583 FG%) and senior forward Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, .448 FG%, .309 3P%).
Summary of Season: Wisconsin got off to a hot start to begin the 2016-17 season, as the Badgers won 21 out of their first 24 games. Although Wisconsin lost 5 of their last 7 games heading into the Big Ten conference tournament, head coach Greg Gard and company cruised through the quarterfinals and semifinals with double-digit wins over Indiana and Northwestern.
Having said that, the Badgers faced a red hot Michigan Wolverines team in the Big Ten final and ultimately lost 71-56.
Senior guard Bronson Koenig set a school-record with eight three-pointers yesterday to help (8) Wisconsin defeat (9) Virginia Tech, 84-74, and advance on to the 2nd round of the East regional, where they will matchup against No. 1 overall seed Villanova.
#1 Villanova Wildcats
Record: (32-3 overall, 15-3 conference)
Key players: Player of the Year candidate senior guard Josh Hart (18.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, .509 FG%, .408 3P%), senior forward Kris Jenkins (13.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, .388 FG%), and sophomore guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, .544 FG%, .393 3P%).
Summary of Season: Villanova did not miss a step this season after winning the 2016 National Championship.
Including last year’s postseason run, the Wildcats went on a 20-game winning streak to begin the season. Jay Wright and the reigning NCAA tournament champions did lose three regular season games (two against Butler and one against Marquette) during the 2016-17 campaign, but still clinched their 4th straight regular season Big East title against Creighton in late February.
After beating Creighton again for the Big East tournament title in the conference final, (1) Villanova struggled early on in yesterday’s first round contest against (16) Mount St. Mary’s. The defending champions did regroup after halftime and went on to win by 20 points, with the help of redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo came in off the bench to score a team-high 21 points and recorded a career-high 13 rebounds.
What Villanova will need to do to win:
Villanova cannot repeat their lackluster first half performance from yesterday’s game against Mount St. Mary’s if they want to return to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats uncharacteristically only made one three-pointer before intermission in the first round of the tournament. POY candidate Josh Hart converted that lone three but for Villanova to win they must put together a complete shooting performance as a team. Also, senior forward Darryl Reynolds (Nova’s primary big man) will need to lead coach Wright’s undersized frontcourt by forcing Wisconsin’s big men off the low block and protecting the paint for Villanova. For Nova to advance on to the next round, they must box out on the defensive end, as the Badgers are 9th in the nation in offensive rebounding.
What Wisconsin will need to do to win:
Wisconsin has a really good chance at winning this game if they can do a couple things right. For starters, they must get Bronson Koenig going early. The senior has a knack for showing up in big moments, as he did last year against Xavier in the Round of 32. Wisconsin will also have to establish the inside-out game by engaging Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes early on. By getting the big men involved, they’ll put pressure on Villanova’s thin frontcourt and open up shooting opportunities for Koenig (.393 3P%), Zak Showalter (.407 3P%), and D’Mitrik Trice (.427 3P%). Finally, as a team that ranks 31st in the nation in total rebounding, they will need to attack the boards and put pressure on an undersized Villanova team.
Bronson Koenig (Wisconsin) vs. Villanova defense
The most key matchup of the game will be how Villanova can contain senior Bronson Koenig. The point guard has proved time and time again that he is one of the most clutch players in the country when the bright lights are shining. He opened up yesterday’s Round of 64 matchup against Virginia Tech with a 28-point, 8 3-pointer performance. He has recorded nine 20-point games this year and has shown the ability to hit shots really quickly. Koenig is a legit scorer and if he gets hot, it would give Wisconsin a very good chance at coming out on top. Villanova must understand that while Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are really strong players, the most important player to slow down will be Koenig because of his ability to dictate the tone of the game through hitting shots. Villanova should throw multiple different looks at Koenig. This may include starting with Jalen Brunson on him, but moving to Josh Hart and even Mikal Bridges (if Wisconsin goes with a small lineup).
Zak Showalter (Wisconsin) and Darryl Reynolds (Villanova)
Zak Showalter enters the game as one of the premier defenders in college basketball. It will be his job to attempt to slow down Villanova’s fantastic guard play. Whether it’s sticking Jalen Brunson or Josh Hart, he will have a major assignment that will play a huge role in the outcome of the game. At the same time, a large part of the Wisconsin game plan revolves around going through their big men, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Villanova will have their hands full with their thin frontcourt. Darryl Reynolds, who covers the opposing team’s ‘5’, will have to make sure Happ and Hayes don’t have a field day. His defensive performance will be pivotal if they want to pull out the win.
Prediction: Villanova 70-66
This will most likely be a back and forth game, that closely resembles an Elite Eight matchup. Though Wisconsin is currently the only team to advance into the Sweet 16 over the past three years, Villanova will bring that appearance streak to an end. The Wildcats will come out on top due to their resiliency in tightly contested games and ability to manage games down the stretch.
Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America
-(1) Villanova faces (9) Alabama in the second round of the NCAA tournament