- No. 8 seed Wisconsin stunned No. 1 seed Villanova, the defending national champions, in in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
BUFFALO, N.Y. — We had been waiting patiently for this tournament to fully tap into its usual well of chaos, and on its third afternoon it made its most ample withdrawal yet. It came via a reverse layup, a smothered drive, a missed free-throw, and a too-short, desperate heave, and it ended with the reigning national champions being sent home before the tournament had even finished its first weekend. Wisconsin knocked off No. 1 overall seed Villanova in a 65-62 thriller, a margin first established by the final two points of senior Nigel Hayes’s game-high 19, when Hayes drove past Mikal Bridges for a go-ahead reverse layup to put the Badgers up two with 11.4 seconds left, then preserved when Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown smothered an attempted tying drive by Josh Hart, the Wildcats’ All-America senior guard. Brown came up with the ball and was fouled, sending him to the line to seal it.
Brown, whose only previous points had come on a trio of three-pointers, made the first shot then missed the second, giving Villanova a chance to tie. But by the time the ball found Jalen Brunson’s hands, he hardly had time to manage anything but an aimless, half-strength chuck. The ball fell to the floor hopelessly short, and the Wildcats’ attempt to repeat as champions fell with it. Brown’s teammates rushed the floor and mobbed him in a hug, from which Brown emerged smiling widely and practically laughing. He could breathe easy now. The buzzer had sounded. What it meant was the Badgers’ season was not over. Here are three thoughts on why:
1. Bronson Koenig is not done collecting shining moments
A year ago this weekend, Koenig authored the tournament’s first buzzer-beating dagger, a corner three as time expired to knock off No. 2 seed Xavier in St. Louis. Almost exactly 12 months and some 700 miles away from that shot, he again proved his March mettle. On Thursday, he shook off first-half stomach discomfort that often left him breathing heavy and hunched over to set a new school record with eight three-pointers in a win over Virginia Tech, many of them contested pull-ups. Against Villanova, he buoyed an offense playing without a foul-addled Happ for much of the first half, including a pull-up jumper that sent the Badgers into halftime up by four. In the second half his two threes could not have been much better timed: the first, from the corner, tied the score at 57 to complete a seven-point comeback with 3:27 left; the second put the Badgers up three at the two-minute mark. Koenig, a 39.3% shooter from three on the season, is 11-for-23 from deep over Wisconsin’s two wins this week, displaying the kind of trigger and accuracy befitting a star turn in this tournament. When a big shot is needed for the Badgers in the Sweet 16, you can bet Koenig will have the ball in his hands.
2. Heavy is the head
Villanova came into the tournament last season dogged by questions about whether it could advance past the opening weekend for the first time in seven years. Josh Hart said earlier this week that it was nice to not hear that question anymore, but in its place had emerged a different burden: Could the Wildcats repeat? Though they swore there were no jitters, Villanova came out looking tight and off-kilter in both of its games. Against No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s, it took the Wildcats six minutes to score their first point, a span during which Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins each airballed a shot. Against Wisconsin, the Wildcats shot just 29.6% in the first half, including 1-of-7 shooting from title game hero Jenkins and an 0-for-3 effort from point guard Jalen Brunson. Hart also uncharacteristically turned the ball over three times. Had it not been for freshman Donte DiVincenzo, who had his first double-double in Thursday’s win and scored nine first-half points against the Badgers, the Wildcats would have looked even more lost and would not have hung with Wisconsin for nearly as long as they did. For as well-honed and unflinching an apparatus as Villanova was during its post-championship season, it was jarring to see it look so out of sorts for much of its brief tournament stay this March, often rushing for sub-optimal shots and botching even some quality looks.
3. Size mattered
The talk heading into this matchup was about how the Wildcats, whose interior defense had been suspect and vulnerable all season, would handle Happ, the Badgers’ fleet-footed 6’10” forward, who spent his sophomore season emerging as an All-America-level post player. “Individually, if you took the best feet or the best hands, he's got them,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said yesterday. “And put them together in the same guy, right, that's a really tough matchup.” So when Happ headed to the bench with his second foul just eight minutes into Saturday’s game, it seemed like the kind of break the Wildcats would need. And yet Wisconsin, with 6’ 8” senior Hayes taking on a pronounced role inside, hardly missed a beat without its best big, grabbing eight of 20 available offensive rebounds and shooting 69.2% (9-of-13) inside the arc in the first half. When Happ returned to the floor after halftime, he drove easily past Villanova big Darryl Reynolds for a bucket on his first touch. A few minutes later, when he left a lay-in on the front iron, he grabbed his own miss, put it back for a score, then swatted Eric Paschall’s attempted retort off the glass on the other end. Late in the game, with the scored tied, Hayes was able to extend Badgers’ possessions twice by grabbing his own misses, ultimately leading to a go-ahead three from Koenig. The difference was not overwhelming, but in a game decided by a single possession, it may have been decisive.