No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers v. No. 4 Florida Gators
And a new NCAA basketball champion will be crowned in 2017 thanks to the criminally under-seeded Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin and their slew of seniors will face off against the Florida Gators in a matchup that probably should have happened in the Round of 32 instead.
The story of the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers has been told over and over again this March. After stumbling towards the finish line of the regular season (losers of five of six in late February), the Badgers grabbed a two-seed in the Big Ten Conference tournament and ultimately lost in the finals to the white hot Michigan Wolverines. Wisconsin put up a lackluster performance against Michigan, but with all of the story lines surrounding the game – namely Michigan’s flight catastrophe – there were at least some reasonable expectations of why a team that has been to two Final Fours in the last three seasons looked flat in the conference final.
The committee didn’t see it that way though, and seeded the Badgers on the eight line – three seeds below Big Ten adversary Minnesota whom they defeated twice throughout the season. Wisconsin wins opening game. Wisconsin topples number-one overall seed. Rinse and repeat.
Led by Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ, to say this Badgers team far exceeds their seeding is not doing enough justice. They’ve won together through multiple years, and are by far more accomplished in NCAA tournament play than any team remaining – having been to four consecutive Sweet 16’s.
On the other end trying to derail another Final Four berth for the Badgers are the Florida Gators who suddenly look like a dominant squad. After dismantling the methodical and sometimes (er, most of the time) boring Virginia Cavaliers by holding the Hoos’ offense to just 39 points, the Gators look like a team with Phoenix in their sights.
There are intriguing matchups down the board, with tournament vet Bronson Koenig facing off against Florida’s backcourt of KeVaughn Allen and Kasey Hill while Nigel Hayes faces off against Devin Robinson in a battle for versatile 6’8″ combo-forward supremacy. This game has all the makings of being the best one of all the Sweet 16 matchups.
No. 3 Baylor Bears v. No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks
Quickly becoming the darlings of March, the South Carolina Gamecocks continue on their magical journey to face off against the third-seeded Baylor Bears. Both teams bring numerous facets to the table, and either side will be a scary team to face down the road.
Defense has been the trademark for the Gamecocks all season long. Nationally ranked 6th in defensive rating and 15th in opponent effective field goal percentage, the stifling defense of South Carolina aided them through a successful 22-10 regular season record. They’re a consistently solid defensive team with multiple stoppers across the positions. What hasn’t been consistent for them is on the offensive side of the ball. The Gamecocks have a true shooting percentage of 52.2-percent, placing them near the bottom 75 of all Division I schools. Making this sudden run of offensive brilliance all the more remarkable.
South Carolina has one great offensive player in Sindarius Thornwell, but it has been the rest of the Gamecocks players that have begun put the ball in the basket in bunches. PJ Dozier pitched in with 21 points against Marquette, while Chris Silva and Duane Noice had 17 points a piece in their recent stunner upset over Duke. If they’re able to get more contributions from players that aren’t typically scorers, they remain a tough team to beat.
The Bears have put early-round exit critiques to rest by dispatching their first two opponents thus far. An impressive performance in New Mexico State was followed up by a win versus USC in which the Bears controlled a majority of the game but let the pesky Trojans back into the game. The fact that this iteration of Baylor was able to fend off multiple runs by their opponents in their opening games goes to show that this roster is better equipped to make a deeper run in the tournament. Jonathan Motley and crew aren’t going to allow recent Bears history dictate how they perform in 2017, and the former number-one ranked team in the nation is hoping to prove many doubters wrong by earning a spot in Phoenix for the Final Four.
The key to the game will be how South Carolina’s resurgent offense fares against an athletic Baylor team. It’ll be intriguing to see how Baylor coach Scott Drew utilizes Motley and the rest of his weapons on the defensive end, and how his team will try to take Thornwell out of the game. The Gamecocks haven’t been as locked in defensively as we are typically accustomed to – admittedly could be to due to how well they’ve been faring on offense – but if South Carolina can stymie a Baylor offense that doesn’t feature any premier scorers it could be a tight game throughout.
Source: Benny Sieu, Jeremy Brevard /USA TODAY Sports