Notre Dame basketball looks to advance to the Elite 8 tonight against Wisconsin. The Badgers have had a roller coaster of a season. They started off just 9-9 and were in danger of missing the tournament. They also saw longtime head coach Bo Ryan retire and assistant coach Greg Gard take over. Wisconsin then went on a 7 game win streak that included wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland. The Badgers finished the season winning 11 of 13 games, but fell to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament.
Wisconsin won their first round game over Pittsburgh 47-43 in honestly what was one of the ugliest games of the tournament. They then took down 2 seed Xavier in what was one of the best games of the tournament thus far. Junior guard Bronson Koenig drained a three-pointer as time expired to push the Badgers past the Musketeers 66-63. Wisconsin has the smallest winning margin of anyone left in the tournament with +3.5, but the Irish are not far behind with a winning margin of +4. This should be a very good game that is decided in the final minutes.
These two programs have two very contrasting styles of play. For years Wisconsin has prided itself on strong defensive teams and this year’s team is no different. They are 11th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. They also love to control the tempo and play at a slower pace. When the Badgers win, they are usually scoring in the high 60s or low 70s. In their 22 wins they have averaged 72 PPG and in their 12 loss they have averaged. If they can keep the game in the 60s tonight, they should win the ball game.
Koenig had a huge game in Wisconsin’s second round win over Xavier as he exploded for 20 points and was 6-12 from three-point range. He was clutch against Xavier, but frankly in games leading up to that he wasn’t playing all that well. In his three previous games against Pitt, Nebraska and Purdue Koenig only averaged just 7 PPG and shot a dreadful 21% from the field. Wisconsin went just 1-2 in those games. If the Irish can contain Koenig they should be in pretty good shape because there is a correlation between Wisconsin winning and Koenig playing well.
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Nigel Hayes will be an x-factor for Wisconsin. Hayes has been a key cog in Wisconsin’s Final Four runs over the last two seasons. This year Hayes has struggled mightily in the tournament. The junior forward is averaging 9 points and shooting just 18% from the field, including 0-11 from three. Wisconsin will need a much bigger effort out of Hayes if they want to advance to their third straight Elite 8.
For the Irish they will need to keep getting great play from Demetrius Jackson. He showed well in ND’s first and second round games and is peaking at the right time. I like Jackson in the matchup against Koenig and Wisconsin’s guards. His athleticism over the Badger guards will play as an advantage. He’s taking advantage of playing off the ball with Matt Farrell taking care of the ball handling duties. He needs to stay aggressive and not get too down if his shot isn’t falling early on. Look for him to come up big for Notre Dame.
One matchup to watch is between Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Ethan Happ, and ND big man, Zach Auguste. Happ was arguably the best player for the Badgers in their two opening round wins. The freshman forward averaged 16.5 and 8 rebounds. Auguste averaged 13 points and 13.5 rebounds in Notre Dame’s wins over Michigan and Stephen F. Austin.
As for my prediction I like the Irish and I also like them to cover the 1-point spread. The Badgers riding high off the buzzer beater over Xavier, but leading up to that game they really haven’t been playing that well. I also like the Irish because they have a little bit more athleticism than Wisconsin. I like Notre Dame’s ability to score a lot more than Wisconsin’s. The Irish have got huge contributions from V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. Those are the type of players that will be the deciding factors because ND’s big guns (Jackson and Auguste) are going to get theirs. The Irish will have to push the tempo and try and make it a run and gun type of game. If they can do that and get Wisconsin out of their comfort zone, the Irish will be headed to their second consecutive Elite 8.