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Villanova faces tough task in second-round opponent Wisconsin

03/17/2017, 5:00pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Hart (above) and Villanova play a Wisconsin team that reminds them of a tough foe from this year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

When looking at a second-round NCAA Tournament match-up against Wisconsin (Sat., approx. 2:40 PM, CBS), several Villanova players noted that the Badgers bore more than slight resemblance to one team that’s given the Wildcats fits: Butler.

The thorn in Villanova’s side this season, the Bulldogs handed the Wildcats two of their only three losses on the season, solving a puzzle that few teams have been able to finish over the last few years.

So a day after Villanova (32-3) came out flat in its first-round win over Mount St. Mary’s before finally waking up after halftime for a 76-56 win, head coach Jay Wright has plenty to be worried about if his team hopes to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and continue on its national championship title defense.

“They are similar in a lot of ways with their pack-line defense, their physicality,” the 16th-year head coach said. “And Butler shoots threes better than people know. Wisconsin shoots them really well as we all saw last night. It's a very similar type of game, and it's going to be a struggle. And I actually think Wisconsin's bigger, even bigger, than Butler, so probably even tougher.

“But let's hope we learn from those games.”

Butler’s plan of attack for both wins was the same: win the rebound battle, limit Villanova from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs out-rebounded the Wildcats 33-24 in the first matchup and 32-31 the second time around, while holding them to 12-of-50 (24.0 percent) from beyond the arc.

It’s a plan that Wisconsin (26-9) will try to match, even if it’s typically only able to do one of those things at an elite level.

Coming into the tournament, the Badgers were out-rebounding opponents by an average of 6.3 boards/game; according to KenPom, they’re 20th in the country in offensive rebound percentage (35.7 percent) and 31st in defensive rebounding percentage (25.3 percent).

And while they are generally a terrific defensive team (.918 points per possession, 8th nationally), one area they really struggle with is defensive 3-point percentage; Wisconsin’s opponents shot 37.7 percent from deep this year, which puts the Badgers in the bottom 50 teams in the country.

“We can’t second-guess ourselves,” senior wing Josh Hart said. “We know they’re a tough defensive team, so we’ve just got to go in and be aggressive, take our shots sometimes. Sometimes we’ll shoot a shot and it’ll get contested but we’ll think we’re open, so you can’t the next time say ‘okay I’m not going to shoot,’ because the next time you might be open.”

Of course, Butler isn’t the only Big East team that Wisconsin can draw comparisons to. In fact, the closest match might be Villanova itself -- the Wildcats are stout defensively (.921 ppp), tend to win the rebound battle (+3.9/game), and, like the Badgers, they’re more than happy to run the shot clock down into its final seconds if that’s what it takes to get a good look.

Both teams, according to KenPom, play around the 30th-slowest tempo in all of Division I.

"I think there's also some comparisons between us and Villanova, specifically defensively, " Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. "Just watching them, how physical they are, how they do a great job of playing a team-oriented defense. Really low to the ball pretty well, and defensively they're very impressive. Everybody talks about what Hart and [Kris] Jenkins and [Jalen] Brunson do offensively and how they run the show. Defensively they're very good as well."

Wisconsin’s ultra-patient offense was on display down the stretch of its first-round win over Virginia Tech on Thursday night. The Badgers continually worked the ball into senior big man Ethan Happ, who had no hesitation to kick back out to shooters or re-post and start over.

Defending it is a grind, and with the way Wisconsin collects its own misses, it’s a grind that can last upwards of a minute or more.

“They had some [possessions] where they got to 3-4 seconds left on the shot clock and then they got an offensive rebounds,” Hart said, “so you’re on defense for 27-28 seconds and they get a shot, tip it back and you’ve got to go on defense for another 27-28 seconds. So that’s something we know they’re very good at, so we’ve got to just play them tough and try to limit their offensive rebounding.”

The Wildcats will need to play close attention to Happ, a 6-10 redshirt sophomore who’s already approaching 1000 points (918) and 600 rebounds (596) in just his first two years of collegiate experience. This year, he’s averaging 13.9 ppg, leading his team in rebounding (9.1/game) and assists (2.8/game) as well.

“He's got the best hands of any player of his size we've played against, and also the best feet,” Wright said. “Put them together in the same guy, right, that's a really tough match-up, in that he could score (inside), but he passes extremely well out of there.”

Surrounding Happ is a veteran bunch that includes senior guard Bronson Koenig (14.1 ppg), who went for a career-high 28 points in the win over Virginia Tech; senior Nigel Hayes (13.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) had 18 points and 10 rebounds while fifth-year senior Zak Showalter (8.3 ppg, .397 3PT%) is another reliable, experienced perimeter option.

“You see how well-balanced they are, I think that's the biggest thing,” Hart said. “If a team is just all post game, and you're able to kind of shut down their post game, then at times, you can kind of have an easier route. But with them, they're so well-balanced, with having Nigel down there, then you have Bronson, and Showalter out there shooting threes, so the balance of that team is going to be a challenge.”

It’s a group that matchups up well with a similarly-even-keeled and experienced Villanova squad, led by Hart (18.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and fellow senior Jenkins (13.3 ppg, 4.62 rpg), plus sophomore Brunson (14.8 ppg, 4.2 apg), redshirt sophomore Mikal Bridges (10.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and more.

If Villanova wants to win another five games and become the first team to win back-to-back national championships since Florida (2006-07), it needs Jenkins to get back to form.

The hero of last year’s title game, a career 37.4 percent shooter from deep, was making 42.9 percent of his 3-point attempts through the first 19 games of the season, but since then he’s been slumping. An 0-for-6 outing against Mount St. Mary’s left him at 26.8 percent (26-of-97) since a Jan. 24 loss to Marquette.

His teammates retain confidence in him, but confidence doesn’t add to the final score if the shots aren’t going down.

“He's a great shooter, and I just know his mindset,” Hart said. “Every one that he's going to shoot is going to go in.

“I tell him if I pass you the ball, and you're open, one-two step and let it fly.”

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