COLUMBUS, Ohio — As he took the floor for tip-off Sunday, Sam Dekker waved his right hand in front of his face. Some lingering smoke from Ohio State’s pregame introductions wafted through the place, creating mildly hazy sightlines and an unpleasant smell. So Wisconsin’s junior forward fanned away, doing what he could to minimize the annoyance. It would not be the Badgers’ last attempt to clear the air.
Many times, Wisconsin looks like one of the best four teams in college basketball. Sunday was another one of those times. The Big Ten champions played with their usual precision and malice, rendering Ohio State hapless in a 72-48 win. How good the Badgers can be was clear at Value City Arena. Whether they are designated to be that good by the NCAA tournament selection committee is a cloudier thing, not to mention far more consequential.
One week from Selection Sunday, in fact, it is the cliffhanger with the most far-reaching implications for March.
If Wisconsin is not a No. 1 seed, it almost assuredly will be the best No. 2 seed on the board. And it nevertheless almost assuredly will be dropped into the same region as the best No. 1 seed. Which is Kentucky. Kentucky, the 31-0 colossus. The same Kentucky that beat Wisconsin in the Final Four a year ago. The same Kentucky that very reasonably could be beat by a team built exactly like Wisconsin.
By all logical applications of basketball justice, this should not happen before the Final Four. Thanks to the NCAA’s geographical guidelines for bracketing, it should be set up that way, if the Badgers do not earn the No. 1 seed they say they don’t worry about. They could face the team that created the memory that drove them all offseason, with a trip to Indianapolis at stake.
“We don’t want to go out there and say we’re trying to challenge someone or call someone out,” Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said. “But if we do play them again, hopefully we can make amends for what happened last year.”
So, yes, this will be a very interesting week.
Going into it, the case can easily be made for the Badgers as a No. 1 seed, especially after the war-hammer bludgeoning they applied Sunday. Wisconsin trailed Ohio State for all of 48 seconds and was exquisitely efficient: It averaged 1.180 points per possession and 64 of its 72 points came in the paint, from beyond the three-point line or at the free-throw stripe. It was clinical domination worthy of a No. 1. The complication? Fellow top-line contenders have similar or better arguments overall.
Among that group, Wisconsin’s strength of schedule (15th) trails only Duke’s. But the Badgers’ eight wins against the RPI top 50 is a total that falls short of Villanova (11), Duke (10) and only matches Virginia. The separation here is microscopic and, as usual, depends on the eye of the beholder. Any conference tournament stumbles could be immensely consequential, but failing that, it’s going to be the standard beauty pageant.
Which led to Sunday, and the breaking news that Bo Ryan does not particularly care for beauty pageants.
“I know Johnny Appleseed,” the Badgers coach quipped after the game. “I don’t know about one seeds.”
Ryan’s players shared his general indifference, albeit less colorfully. Everyone else is a bit more attuned to the dynamic, though. And even brassy Kentucky faithful surely recognize a two-pronged truth: Wisconsin poses a legitimate threat to the Wildcats making history, and for that exact reason, this is a matchup worthy of the elevated stage of a Final Four court.
The Badgers had the nation’s most efficient offense and its lowest turnover percentage (11.0) entering Sunday. Wisconsin plays deliberately; its 59.7 possessions per game made it the ninth-slowest team in the country. Not surprisingly, it also wedges opponents into a half-court game, spending only 11.4% of its defensive possessions in transition, per Synergy Sports. At its best, it has multiple offensive tools — eight different players scored in the first 11 minutes on Sunday. And those players can maddeningly invert a defense. Wisconsin’s first bucket against Ohio State, in fact, was star center Frank Kaminsky backing down a defender in the post and then whipping a pass to Hayes, a nominal power forward, for a top-of-the-key three-pointer.
“They have what we had a few years ago,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. “Everybody is connected out there.”
Which is all to say Wisconsin has the requisite skill and disposition to corral Kentucky into a grinder of a game and draw a Goliath frontline away from the rim. The Badgers, in the end, have the capacity to make the Wildcats as uncomfortable as possible.
This is not to say they would. This is to say it would be enthralling to see them try.
“We measure ourselves against every team,” Kaminsky said. “We talk about how we think we would do against them, who would guard who. It’s just the way college basketball is, especially when you watch the games as a team. It’s just the fun part. You can play anyone. We’re going to go out and play whoever we’re matched up against and try to beat them.”
With one team from Lexington in particular, though? “I feel like, collectively, we’d rather have them in a rematch in the Final Four or the national championship or something like that,” guard Bronson Koenig said. “But, yeah, to us, it doesn’t really matter.”
The way the selection committee bracketing system works is simple: It seeds the top teams and, as far as it can, it places those teams in regions as close to campus as possible. It may adjust for balance across the regions and therefore shift teams among the top four where it can. But the consideration of the best No. 1 being placed with the best No. 2 is not necessarily much of a consideration at all. Which is how, in the end, Kentucky and Wisconsin might be ticketed for Cleveland and the Midwest Regional.
It is basically futile to ask for common sense to intervene, for the committee to ship the Badgers anywhere else, even out West, to hold to true seeding as closely as possible. And so this story may play out sooner than it should. Anyone who was in the locker room after Wisconsin was cut down by an Aaron Harrison dagger a year ago knows the abiding pain that team felt. Some players couldn’t speak through their tears. That night was, in Koenig’s words, the “biggest motivation” for an off-season of work, to get back to that same moment and this time author a different result.
The Badgers say they are not thinking about Kentucky now. Yet, in a way, they have never stopped doing so.
On Sunday afternoon, in an attempt to motivate a team that already clinched a conference title, Ryan instructed his players to treat the Ohio State tilt like a championship game. It was a minor test of their resolve, of their attentiveness to the task. The Badgers passed the test, and then some, with a strikingly thorough performance. They’ll have to carry that into the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, restating their case for a No. 1 seed every night.
“They know when we need to knuckle down,” Ryan said of his team. “They’re not bashful that way.”
Whatever line Wisconsin winds up on, it already has taken dead aim at atoning for what happened last April. If one particular team gets in the way of that, well, better later than sooner.