Wisconsin/Butler Preview: Who’s Elite?

Sometimes, though not as often as I’d like, life is good.

And not just because there are two new flavors of Diet Mountain Dew now in stores.

Nope, I’m talking about the fact that I still have life in one of my March Madness pools. 

Though I’d made some poor choices thus far (thanks for nothing, Washington) that I thought made the rest of my bracket as relevant as Sergio Mendes at an Ozzfest festival, it turns out that because so many people had either Pittsburgh, Texas, Notre Dame, Purdue, or some combination in their final four that simply by having all of my region winners (Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, and BYU) intact, I still have reason to hope.

But do the Wisconsin Badgers, who are heading into their fourth Sweet Sixteen under Bo Ryan, still have reason to hope?

All signs indicate that they do:  Wisconsin soundly beat supposed bracket-buster Belmont by 14 and got past Kansas State 70-65 even though Badger point guard Jordan Taylor was completely outmatched by his Wildcat colleague Jacob Pullen, who scored a monster 38 points, including an awe-inspiring 6-of-8 from three-point land.

In appearing on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike In The Morning” on Monday, Bo Ryan had to laugh at Jordan Taylor’s performance, saying of his 2-of-16 night, “I think that qualifies as struggling.”

In reaching the Regional Finals, Wisconsin has not only looked like one of the best teams in the tournament, but they’ve made the college basketball world (and more importantly, themselves) forget about those two disastrous losses that they suffered leading into the big dance.

And, at least on the surface, it looks like Wisconsin’s trip to the Elite Eight is easiest then it could have been: While Kentucky, the No. 4 seed in the East region, has to face No. 1 Ohio State, the No. 4 seed Badgers get to play the No. 8 seeded Butler Bulldogs, thanks to Butler’s dramatic third-round upset of top-seeded Pittsburgh.

But “getting” to play Butler in this case means not only “getting” to play that team hot enough to beat the region’s No. 1 seed, but also “getting” to play the team that made it all the way to the national championship game just last year.

So which team will ride its current hot streak to Saturday’s Elite Eight?

Wisconsin Will Advance If:

1.  Butler’s Luck Runs Out. No disrespect to the Butler players or to their head coach Brad Stevens, but the Bulldogs road to the Sweet Sixteen this year has gone straight through the town of Flukeville. First they beat No. 9 Old Dominion with a tip-in at the buzzer, then they knocked off No. 1 Pittsburgh thanks largely to a Pitt player committing an ill-advised foul at the end of regulation. Sure, the Bulldogs had to play themselves into positions where they could take advantage of those lucky breaks, but to say their first two wins have been convincing would be misleading at best.

2. Jordan Taylor Shoots, Oh I Don’t Know, Better Than 12 Percent. If you would have asked a group of reasonably sane people (so, not the people on line to see Yogi Bear) what the Badgers’ chances of beating Kansas State were with Taylor hitting a total of two field goals in a full 40 minutes of work, most everyone would have said anywhere from “not good” to “impossible.” So the minor miracle that the Badgers got by the Wildcats despite Taylor’s shooting woes means he needs to step it up Thursday night. The good news is that Taylor has shown an ability to bounce back: After his previous worst game of the season — a 1-for-7 game against Manhattan — he shot nearly 46 percent in a victory over Boston College. And just a few weeks ago, he recovered from a 2-of-9 game against Ohio State to have a 16-point game against Penn State in the first round of the conference tournament.  Although 16 points may not seem like a big deal, remember that his entire team only scored 33 points that game.

3. They Can Put Butler Away Early. Despite what some pundits continue to insist, Butler is nobody’s underdog. They are a confident team that has won 11 straight games and is 7-1 in its last eight NCAA tournament games. More to the point, many of those tournament games — like last year’s 52-50 National Semifinal win over Michigan State — were close contests. Coach Brad Stevens will have the Bulldogs believing until common sense says there is no reason to believe. Perhaps being down by 20 points at halftime would help to shake that belief.

Butler Will Advance If:

1. They Hit Their Long Balls. Butler has been on a streak lately from beyond the arc, averaging almost eight made three-pointers in their 11-game win streak and hitting a whopping 12 of them in their upset over Pittsburgh. It won’t surprise anyone that the Badgers’ offensive efficiency, ability to milk the shot clock, and refusal to turn the ball over will limit the Bulldogs’ number of possessions. They will likely need those three-pointers in this one.

2. They Beat Wisconsin At Their Own Game. Yes, the Badgers are the superior defensive team, but Butler’s defense is a far cry from an embarrassment. The Bulldogs have limited their last 12 opponents to 70 points or less and are almost unbeatable when allowing fewer than 60 points. If Butler can pull a Penn State and take the Badgers out of their offensive rhythm, the Badgers are capable of long offensive droughts that could kill them.

3.  They’re Quicker To The Ball. In a weird fluke (flukes and Butler seeming to be synonymous), in their first two tournament games, Butler faced the two teams with the best rebounding margin in the country. Against Old Dominion, Butler outrebounded them 32-29, and against Pittsburgh, the Bulldogs’ tenacity forced Pittsburgh into 12 turnovers, exactly double what Butler committed. While the Badgers lead the country in fewest turnovers per game, Butler can take heart that just last week Belmont forced them to turn the ball over an uncharacteristic 14 times.

While it wouldn’t shock anyone if Butler were to go to their second straight Elite Eight, the fact that they barely got by Old Dominion, a team that is a combined 3-11 in eleven NCAA tournament appearances, and then ousted an overrated Pittsburgh team thanks to a fluky ending suggets that Butler cannot and will not sustain the run they did last year.

While they shouldn’t be overconfident — it was just three years ago that the Badgers played a lower seed in the Sweet Sixteen and lost badly (to Davidson by a score of 73-56) — Badgers fans should be feeling pretty good about not only this matchup but about how their team has looked in the tournament so far. And they’ll be feeling ever better if Jordan Taylor hits some shots early, which I bet he will.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 68, Butler 62.


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