Defending national champion Villanova faces one of the most challenging Second Round draws in this NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats face Wisconsin, a team that spent much of the regular season ranked in the top 10, and a program with a track record of Tournament success.
The Badgers reached their third straight Sweet 16 last season, scoring a monumental Second Round upset of Villanova's Big East counterpart Xavier to advance. Many of the key contributors from that Wisconsin team, like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, lead a similarly upset-minded 2017 Badger group into Saturday's East Region showdown.
Wisconsin plays with its typical defensive prowess, a trait cultivated under Dick Bennett; refined under Bo Ryan; and now overseen by Greg Gard. The Badgers rank No. 8 nationally in defensive efficiency. But coming into Saturday's matchup, Wisconsin played some of its best offensive basketball of the season, scoring 84 points in its win over Virginia Tech.
The Badgers will need that – and a 40-minute effort – to unseat the champions. Villanova overcame a sluggish first half in the opening round to rout No. 16 Mount St. Mary's, 76-56. While the Wildcats simply followed script as a No. 1 seed dispatching a No. 16, the win mirrored a January victory over Virginia – a game that stands as proof-positive that Villanova keeps coming for an entire game, no matter how slow the start.
East Region: No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (26-9) vs. No. 1 Villanova Wildcats (32-3)
Time: 2:40 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: KeyBank Arena (Buffalo)
Line: Villanova -5
Keys for Wisconsin
Certainly shooting nearly 42 percent from behind the 3-point line would buoy Wisconsin's chances against Villanova, as it factored into the win over Virginia Tech. In particular, Koenig was able to get loose for an eye-popping 8-of-17 shooting from deep.
But to free up Koenig and Zak Showalter for looks, Wisconsin must begin by attacking on the inside.
Hayes effectively got into the paint off the dribble against Virginia Tech, but taking Wildcat defenders off the bounce should prove more difficult. The Badgers need to establish 6-foot-10 All-America candidate Ethan Happ as a threat early.
This year's Villanova team features more speed and athleticism than last season's championship squad, but lack the interior defensive presence of Daniel Ochefu. Mikal Bridges is a capable shot blocker, but Happ can draw the Villanova big man into foul trouble if he's fed in the post early.
Keys for Villanova
Three-point shooting played a central role in Villanova's run to the 2016 national title. With championship game hero Kris Jenkins still in the mix, the Wildcats can and will hit the triple effectively again in 2017.
However, attacking Wisconsin's stellar defense with tempo and seeking scoring opportunities in the open court will be critical.
The Wildcats excel scoring from inside the arc. With national Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart setting the pace, the Villanova perimeter attacks opponents with a wave of athleticism. Hart, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo form a trio of terrific scoring threats off the dribble.
Villanova can take Wisconsin out of its comfort zone, much in the same way Michigan used its offensive style to deluge the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
While Wisconsin has the pieces necessary to shock the defending national champions, Villanova's playing arguably its best basketball since... well, last NCAA Tournament. The first-half hiccup against Mount St. Mary's aside, Villanova is clicking on both sides of the ball.
As for Wisconsin, the Badgers have been wildly up-and-down for the past month. Maintaining the hot shooting that carried UW to victory over Virginia Tech will prove difficult against Villanova's defense.