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NCAA Tournament Round One Matchup: Virginia Tech vs. Wisconsin

Previewing the Hokies’ first tournament game in a decade.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Hokies have one of the toughest draws in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as they face No. 8 seed Wisconsin in the first round in Buffalo. The Badgers had a great run to start the season as the No. 7 team in the AP Top 25, with a 21-3 record after 24 games. However, they dropped five of their next seven finishing the regular season with a 23-8 record. To their credit, Wisconsin rebounded and made it to the finals of the B1G tournament before falling to a Michigan team playing their fourth game in four games. They finished at No. 25 in the final edition of this season’s AP Poll.

Wisconsin and Virginia Tech have met just one time in school history, with Wisconsin winning that game 74-72. This game has the potential to be just as close.

While this is the Hokies’ first tournament game in a decade, Wisconsin is used to the spotlight. The Badgers have reached the Sweet Sixteen in five of the last six years. Virginia Tech has not accomplished that feat since 1966. At this point, every game is its own season. This will be a new experience for the Hokies, but Buzz Williams has been to the tournament before and should be able to get his side ready to compete.

Both teams will look to play to their identity. For the Badgers, that identity comes from defense. Wisconsin has not allowed more than 65 PPG in a season since 2005-06, and this year was no different. Allowing just 61.4 points per contest, the Badgers rank 9th in the nation in that category and 18th in the country in defensive efficiency (94.1 Defensive Rating). They have held teams to just 41% shooting, and a stout interior defense forces opponents into bad shots inside the arc. Teams are making just 42.6% of their two-point attempts against Wisconsin, which ranks 10th in the nation. Virginia Tech, even though it has been lights out from the perimeter, will look to get as many paint touches as possible per possessions, but will undoubtedly have a tough time penetrating the Badgers’ defense.

Wisconsin also possesses great length across the board. It may not be at the level of Florida State, but they can certainly cause problems. The Hokies turned it over 13 times against the Seminoles, and must be careful to not make the same mistakes against a Wisconsin team that excels at forcing turnovers. The Badgers force a steal on 10.5% of their defensive possessions, one of the best rates in the nation. In addition, teams turn the ball over on 17.8% of their offensive possessions against Wisconsin. The turnover battle may end up being the deciding factor in this game. Virginia Tech cannot allow Wisconsin to garner those extra possessions, while losing some on the offensive end simultaneously.

After Chris Clarke tore his ACL against Virginia, Buzz Williams has said multiple times that the team is “playing with fire” on the defensive end due to its inability to rebound and finish defensive possessions. This will more than likely be a major problem in this game. Wisconsin ranks 21st in the NCAA in Total Rebound Percentage and 22nd on the offensive glass. Every player on the floor gets involved in the action, including the guards. This will be one of the toughest tests for Zach LeDay and Ty Outlaw this season. It also gives the Hokies extra incentive to keep their turnover rate low, as it is almost a certainty Wisconsin will have more shot attempts than Virginia Tech.

The good news for Virginia Tech is the Badgers have not been great at defending the perimeter this season. During conference play, teams have shot over 40% from behind the arc against Wisconsin.

Sometimes, basketball becomes as simple as making your open shots. While the Hokies won’t encounter them very often, they need to cash in when Wisconsin allows them to shoot open looks. We know Outlaw is a reliable shooter. We know Seth Allen has been one of the leaders of this team all year and has shown excellent composure. Justin Bibbs has been a consistent threat during the back half of the year. It is Ahmed Hill who needs to step up. He has become visibly frustrated at times when his shot is not falling. Wisconsin will do their best to run Outlaw, Allen, and Bibbs off the three-point line so Hill could be a huge x-factor on the offensive end.

However, the Hokies not only possess one of the best three-point percentages in the country, but also some of the best eFG% and TS% as well. Virginia Tech has accomplished this by attacking the rim constantly and getting to the free throw line in addition to their excellent three-point shooting. The gobblers’ .298 FT/FGA rate ranks 34th in the NCAA and they led the ACC in two-point percentage during conference play.

Another way to pressure Wisconsin is to push the pace. With the Hokies’ speed advantage, this will be an ideal way to create scoring opportunities. Pomeroy ranks Wisconsin’s adjusted tempo at 333rd in the country, while the Hokies rank 158th. The Badgers are in the Miami/Virginia mold, where it is difficult to score on them once they get set. Taking them out of their comfort zone in transition could prove an effective way to do that.

Wisconsin pairs their great defense with a good offense. The Badgers score just under 72 PPG on 1.102 points per possession. That efficiency ranks 57th in the nation. However, this is a team that does not shoot all that well from the field. On the year, the Badgers are shooting 45.2% from the field, but only 42.6% during conference play, one of the reasons for their slide in the rankings.

The key matchup to watch will be down low, with Zach LeDay guarding big man Ethan Happ on the interior. The 6-8 Happ is second on the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game. He shows outstanding balance and patience in the post, similar to John Collins, who was effective against the Hokies when they faced Wake Forest.

That patience can cause defenders to be antsy and result in fouls and free throws. As the only big man on the roster that will play over 25 minutes, LeDay will have to stay disciplined on ball fakes. Happ also has good mobility for a big man, capable of handling the basketball and creating for himself off the bounce.

The outstanding big man does a nice job recognizing the double team and making the smart to play to find an open teammate, averaging 2.8 assists per game. Happ leads the team in rebounds with 9.1 per game with a 25.7% DREB%, but isn’t the greatest free throw shooter (50%).

Senior Bronson Koenig has played a similar role to Seth Allen this season. He is Wisconsin’s leading scorer, but does a lot of his damage from the three-point line with a .593 three-point attempt rate. Like Allen, Koenig has done some of his best work in crunch time. For example, he won last year’s second round game against Xavier for the Badgers

Koenig is also one of the best shooters on the team, making 38.9% of his three-pointers (6.9 attempts per game) and makes 90% of his free throws. He has the quickness and ability to blow by defenders who close out hard to the perimeter.

Paired with Happ in the frontcourt is 6-8 forward Nigel Hayes. He is another player that can go to the block and score, but also has the vision to dice up the Hokies’ zone. Hayes scores 13.5 points per game and is second on the team averaging 6.5 boards. He excels at creating contact and getting to the charity stripe, averaging about attempts per game, but only makes 58.5% of his free throws. When he is on the floor with Happ, those two could cause major problems against the undersized Hokies defense. Ty Outlaw is invaluable due to his perimeter shooting, but I expect Hayes and Happ to attack him to at least get him in foul trouble.

Wisconsin is shooting 35.6% from three this season – 150th in the country – but they do have a few sharpshooters that can do real damage. Zak Showalter starts in the backcourt and knocks down 39.7% of his long range attempts, scoring 8.3 points per game. Showalter is ultra-efficient inside the arc, hitting 63.1% of his two-pointers. He is also one of their best individual defenders. Statistically, freshman D’Mitrik Trice is the best three-point shooter on the team. He shoots 43.9% from deep on 2.4 attempts per game.

Much has been made about Wisconsin’s poor perimeter defense, but the Hokies have not been great in that department either. Virginia Tech’s opponents shot 36% from three this season, and 40.8% during conference play. Much of that came from being unable to contain teams in the paint, which forced the defense to overhelp. Wisconsin has the ability to hurt the Hokies this way as well.

While the Hokies will be using a seven-man rotation for the remainder of the season, Wisconsin has 8 players that play at least 10 minutes. The Badgers’ have three players listed at 6-8 in the starting lineup, which is obviously a mismatch for the Hokies. In addition to Happ and Hayes, Vitto Brown rounds out the starting lineup. Brown may not get as many minutes as those two, but chips in on the glass with 3.9 boards per game. He can knock down a midrange jumper if given space, making 51.7% of his two point attempts. However, Brown only shoots 30.4% from behind the arc this season so forcing him to extend his range should be the plan to contain him.

Khalil Iverson and Jordan Hill back up Showalter and Koenig in the front court. Iverson is another guard who can rebound, but only averages 3.7 points per game. He has shown the ability to get to the free throw line with a .488 free throw attempt rate. Iverson is a turnover-prone with a 20.9% turnover rate, so the Hokies should look to pressure the ball when he has it. Hill does not add too much value to the team while on the floor, failing to make a significant impact as a rebounder or scorer.

Even though Wisconsin has a significant amount of tournament experience compared to the Hokies, it could be Virginia Tech that has the advantage if the game comes down to the wire. The Hokies are 8-4 in games decided by 5 points or less this season and will probably have to play another close game no matter how far they go in the tournament. Wisconsin has lost multiple games this season due to poor free throw shooting, which can sometimes be amplified on a bigger stage. Seth Allen may not have to hit an incredible game-winning shot, but the Hokies have to remain cohesive as a team as the clock winds down to triple-zeroes, like they have been doing all season.

Prediction:

It still feels surreal that the Hokies are back in the tournament. It is a phenomenal accomplishment just three years into Buzz’s tenure in Blacksburg. But the Hokies don’t want to go home after one game. Wisconsin is a good team that will make life tough for Virginia Tech due to their rebounding and stout defense. I don’t think the Hokies can shoot well enough from the perimeter to counter Wisconsin’s edge on the glass. The Hokies might lose this game, but I hope they enjoy and learn from the moment, as much of the team will be back and primed to make the tournament next year.

Wisconsin 71-65

The game will be televised on CBS at approximately 9:40 PM EST.

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