The Virginia Tech Hokies will be playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Take a deep breath.
Let that sink in for a second.
It has been a decade since the Hokies last heard their named called on Selection Sunday. No one could have predicted the backwards slide that would follow Tech's 2007 second round loss to 4th-seeded Southern Illinois. (For those of you too young to remember, yes, the Salukis used to be a darn good basketball program). In the years that followed, the Hokies began finding themselves on the wrong side of the bubble and eventually out of the conversation altogether.
Years in the ACC basement eventually gave way to Virginia Tech's Luke Skywalker; a positive-minded, raspy-voiced, perpetually-perspiring head coach that rebuilt the program's culture from the ground up. Suddenly, there was hope. When Buzz Williams was hired, fans told themselves Year 3 would be the first reasonable opportunity to dream of an NCAA Tournament berth. Not even the most rational Tech fan could have predicted how stress-free Sunday's selection show would end up being.
Matched up against the 8th-seeded Wisconsin Badgers, the #9 Hokies have good reason to be mildly frustrated with where they landed. Many of the bracket
experts hobbyists had Tech pegged for a 7- or 8-seed, yet the Hokies find themselves matched up with a former Top-10 team and a second round matchup with #1 overall seed (and defending National Champion) Villanova on the horizon.
So what can the Hokies expect from the Badgers? Well, it depends on how much stock you want to put in the psychological aspects of the game.
Wisconsin began the season 21-3 and ranked as high as 7th in the country, with losses to Creighton, Carolina and Purdue (all highly seeded tournament teams). They then went on to lose 5 of 7 games before making a mini run to the B1G Tournament final.
The Badgers have a legitimate beef with their seed. They were ranked 11 spots behind a Minnesota team that they swept and finished ahead of in the regular season standings. Five B1G teams were seeded ahead of the Badgers, despite the fact that Wisconsin finished second in the regular season standings behind only Purdue.
So why the 8-seed? It is possible that the selection committee doesn't think Wisconsin is as dangerous as their mid-season record indicated. After all, they left a 21-3 Wisconsin team out of the first ever Top 16 seed list. Wisconsin's late-season slide began against Northwestern the following evening.
Maybe they heavily weighted the Badgers poor momentum heading into the tournament. It could also have something to do with the fact that Wisconsin didn't beat anyone of note outside of their own conference. Their best win before Christmas was a 17-point home victory over NIT team Syracuse.
If you watched the selection show, you saw a short clip of a team that was clearly displeased with where they ended up. Ranked #7 two months ago, they're now tasked with preparing for a similarly underseeded Tech team chomping at the bit to play on the big stage.
The Hokies aren't concerned about a possible second round date with Villanova. But by the looks of it, the Badgers surely are. And that makes Thursday night's first round date with Virginia Tech all the more precarious.
Preparing for the Badgers
After legendary head whistle Bo Ryan abruptly stepped down 12 games into last season, longtime deputy Greg Gard took over and eventually coached his way out from under the "interim" tag.
One of the main reasons why Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez turned to Gard was to provide continuity. Ryan's Hoosiers-esque approach to basketball blended well with the Wisconsin culture, and Gard was very much a disciple of the Ryan brand. Bo didn't rely on highly-rated recruits or roll out traditionally-sized starting lineups. Rather, he molded players to fit into his disciplined, unglamorous style of play. Sound familiar?
Under Gard, the Badgers continue to play their usual brand of fundamental basketball. Gard continues to rely on the swing-offense that Ryan made famous. Coaches Clipboard has a fantastic breakdown of the offensive system and how it approaches shot creation:
The Swing offense is a 4-out patterned offense that has continuity. All five players are interchangeable, and spacing, screening, cutting and good passing are paramount. All five players learn to post up inside.
The offense is deliberate, often with multiple passes and places value on each possession with high percentage inside shots, or free-throws. Unlike some of the recent, newer offenses that utilize the dribble-drive as it's main attack weapon, the Swing offense is truly a "team-offense" that places a premium on good passing, screening and cutting.
Strengths: So what do the Badgers do well and who should Hokies fans be worrying about ahead of Thursday night's matchup?
Experience: Gard's team is led by an experienced group of seniors in Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown. The trio has been to two Final Fours, including a National Championship Game loss to Duke two years ago. Koenig (14.1) and Hayes (13.5) rank first and third, respectively, in points per game, and two of the three seniors rank in the Top 3 of virtually every major statistical category.
Looking past that group, this is a program making their 19th consecutive trip to the Big Dance. Unlike Virginia Tech, NCAA Tournaments are in the program's DNA, and the bright lights shouldn't faze the Badgers.
All-Everything Ethan Happ: The casual college hoops fan that tunes in each March will recognize the Badgers' senior leaders. But fans should get to know Wisconsin big man Ethan Happ. Happ is yet another potential matchup nightmare for the Hokies: A highly-skilled post player that features an array of moves, above-average handles for his size, and a lightning quick first step. Happ finished the regular season as the only player in America to lead his team in points (13.9), rebounds (9) steals (2), and assists (2.9) per game, earning First Team All-Big Ten and Big Ten defensive team honors.
Happ's midrange game leaves something to be desired, but he has a Zach LeDay-esque ability to take defenders off the dribble from the perimeter (but faster, obviously). To make matters worse for the Hokies, he has developed as a passer out of the low post over the course of the season, beating double- and triple-teams with his back to the basket similar to Wake Forest's John Collins.
Given Virginia Tech's lack of post players, containing Happ will be only half the battle. His size/speed combination could lead to a lot of cheap fouls down low, and — as we learned during the Hokies' ACC Tournament game against Florida State — Tech cannot afford to play extended stretches without LeDay.
Defense. Defense. Defense: The Badgers play a disciplined half-court defense that finished the season ninth nationally in points allowed per game (61.4). They don't give up a lot of fouls, rebound the ball decently on both ends of the floor, and hold opposing offenses to 41% shooting (also ninth best in the country). They enter the tournament ranked 8th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 91.3 points per 100 possessions.
Weaknesses: Here's the irony of all of this: Unlike past Wisconsin teams, even the Badgers' strengths are prone to fatal breakdowns. Let's take another spin through the three talking points outlined above.
Experience: Given the level of experience on the roster, this year's Wisconsin team has struggled to match the standards set by their predecessors. Unlike past Badger teams, this year's squad is not terribly efficient from the floor. They shoot 45% from the field (#130 nationally) and 35% from distance (#151). Their 71.9 points per game (#204) were both a product of their average shooting efficiency and their methodical half-court set (#333 in KenPom's Adjusted Tempo). And where Bo Ryan's teams excelled from the charity stripe, Wisconsin has shot an uncharacteristic 64% from the line (#336) this season under Greg Gard. Not exactly the types of traits you would expect from a seasoned squad from Madison.
All-Everything Ethan Happ: As Happ has taken college basketball by storm, teams have tried to adapt to his varied skillset. Northwestern successfully neutralized Happ using a vicious double team in the Wildcats' February 12th win at the Kohl Center. Happ was held to just 9 points and 4 fouls in 26 minutes. But as fellow B1G teams tried to emulate Northwestern's strategy, Happ began breaking down defenses by passing out of the trap.
The Hokies have faced a number of talented big men this season, but their struggles have often occurred at the hands of mountains like Kennedy Meeks and Michael Ojo. Post players like Happ match up surprisingly well with Zach LeDay and his famous scowl. What LeDay lacks in athleticism, he more than makes up for in both tenacity and a knack for getting under the skin of his foes. Given how well LeDay played against John Collins — arguably a more talented player than Happ — in consecutive meetings, Hokies fans should feel good about Tech's chances of containing Happ.
One quick note: During a fateful six-game stretch in late February that saw the Badgers go 1-5, Happ either fouled out or finished with 4 fouls in each of the six contests. On the season, Wisconsin is 7-6 in games where Happ picks up four or more fouls. Don't be surprised if you see the Hokies (and especially Zach LeDay) take the ball right at Happ from the opening tip.
Defense. Defense. Defense: Here's where the Hokies could create some issues for the Badgers. Wisconsin is one of the worst defensive teams against the three this season. They have allowed opposing teams to shoot 37.7% from behind the arc (#311), and 8 of their last 10 opponents exceeded their season averages from distance.
By comparison, the Hokies — who we have panned for their poor three-point defense all season — are only allowing teams to shoot 36% from three (#247). And the Hokies led the ACC and finished 13th nationally in three-point shooting, hitting on 40.3% of their attempts from behind the arc. If you've watched five minutes of Buzzketball this season, you know what that means: Ty Outlaw has been watching film of Wisconsin all week with his legs crossed.
Joey Coogan: Let me start by saying Wisconsin got screwed. The Selection Committee appeared to botch a few seedings this year — Wichita State landing a ten seemed especially egregious — but perhaps no team feels more disrespected than the Badgers. Just 30 days ago, Greg Gard's senior-laden squad stood at 21-3 and ranked seventh in the country, seemingly destined for another top-4 seed and yet another deep run in March. Flash-forward a month, and suffice to say the Badgers likely weren't expecting to be staring down a second-round matchup with Josh Hart and Villanova.
With that being said, I don't hate this matchup for the Hokies. Wisconsin's good, and they know how to win in March, but they're not a team that scares you. Sure, it's a program that's been to two Final Fours in the last three years, and yes, a handful of those same guys will lace it up Thursday night in Buffalo, but they don't scare you. And that's important for an undersized and short-benched Virginia Tech team.
Wisconsin won't run Tech out of the gym. They're too methodical, too stubborn; in short, they're too much like Virginia. But make no mistake, they've got some players. Ethan Happ is as refined a low-post scorer as the Hokies have seen all year, and Nigel Hayes is an enigma (and a glaring mismatch for Tech when Happ is on the floor) that could explode for 30 without notice. Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter are your classic Wisconsin guards, two steady knock-down shooters built for the swing offense (Read: They're white).
I think whoever controls the tempo wins this game. Wisconsin will try to slow the pace and corral the Hokies in transition, turning it into a half-court matchup that sticks to the Badgers' tried-and-true winning formula. Justin Robinson and Seth Allen will be the engine that keeps Tech moving — if they can consistently beat Koenig and Showalter off the dribble, it'll be a long night for the Badgers. I like the Hokies to knock down eight or nine threes and keep it close, but Wisconsin's ultimately too good — especially in March — to bow out before what promises to be an intriguing matchup with Villanova.
Prediction: Wisconsin 69 - Virginia Tech 65
Brian Marcolini: Let's take a look at my recent Virginia Tech basketball predictions:
At the beginning of the season, I said they'd take a step back and finish around .500. I was wrong.
After Tech beat UVA, I predicted a loss to Pittsburgh on the road. I was wrong.
I predicted a blowout loss at Louisville. I was wrong (about the blowout part).
I also guessed an opening round loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament. Again, wrong.
So with my now-noted failures as a prognosticator, take this with a grain of salt: I think the Hokies win.
During the CBS Selection Show, they often cut away to different schools' reactions when they get seeded. Greg Gumbel had to pause as he unveiled the 8/9 line in the East, because the network happened to have the live scenes for both the Badgers and the Hokies.
When he read, "and the eight seed, Wisconsin," they cut to a group of guys who looked like they'd been punched in the nuts. And rightfully so. The Badgers have been in the Top-25 all year, went to the final of the Big Ten tournament, and have the pedigree to make a deep run. Yet they found themselves matched up against another Power Five team before a potential matchup against the defending national champions.
Not a good draw, and everyone in the room knew it.
Then they cut to the scene at Cassell. A Hokie team who was also underseeded looked ecstatic. Zach LeDay lept up in joy, just because Tech's name was called. LeDay and company don't care who they play, which bracket they're in, or what line they're on.
For Wisconsin, the 8/9 matchup in Buffalo is a disappointment. For the Hokies? It's a dream. And that could be the difference. Yes, the Badgers have had tournament success before, but we've seen underseeded programs with a tradition fall early. Last year, Arizona (a six) and West Virginia (a three) both deserved better seeds, then no-showed in the first round.
If Tech can hit their threes, they'll keep it close. And if they can keep it close, I trust Buzz Williams coming down the stretch.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 73 - Wisconsin 71
Pierson Booher: I've said it all season, but the Hokies' biggest strength is also their greatest weakness. Despite a short bench, a vertically-challenged lineup and Chris Clarke in street clothes, their lights-out shooting touch from 3-point range carried them down the stretch.
When the shots are falling, the Hokies are a scary team. Justin Robinson and Seth Allen command a lineup that features four deadly shooters at a given time, and there isn't a guy hotter from behind the arc than Ty Outlaw.
Living and dying by the three-pointer has allowed less talented teams to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, but it has also led to early exits when the shots aren't falling. When Tech's legs fell out from under them against the Seminoles last week, the three-pointers disappeared along with them.
Wisconsin presents an interesting matchup for this Hokies team. Sure, they're probably dealing with lingering frustration over where they ended up in the bracket. But for all of Wisky's successes this season, they have proven to be a deeply flawed team. They won't shoot or run the Hokies out of the gym. While their rotation features three players 6'-8" or taller, they don't pose a terrifying match-up for a Hokies team that finished above .500 in the most athletic and talented conference in America.
I think the Hokies come out firing on Thursday night and look to immediately put the Badgers on their heels. If Zach LeDay can play composed against Ethan Happ and the perimeter jumpers (or set shots from Mr. Hill) are falling, the Hokies should cruise. Given Wisconsin's experience in March, I think this game comes down to the wire before Tech closes it out at the charity stripe.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 77 - Wisconsin 71