Much has been made of the similarities between Wisconsin and Wofford as they prepare for their first-round matchup today in Jacksonville — and with good reason, too.
In terms of offensive and defensive shooting percentages, the Badgers and Terriers nearly mirror one another. Likewise, both are good rebounding teams and average 3-point shooting squads. And there’s one other thing that stands out about both teams, something assistant head coach Greg Gard noted about Wofford: “They don’t beat themselves.”
“It’s kind of like watching us,” Gard said. “They don’t turn it over, they don’t take very many bad shots, they don’t give up easy shots; it’s very seldom you get a lot of offensive rebounds on them [and] they get to the free throw line a lot.”
With that in mind, the differences between the Southern Conference champions and the fourth-best team in the Big Ten may be the key to the East’s No. 4 versus No. 13 matchup.
For starters, Wofford enters Friday’s matchup having won 13 straight games and a school-record 26 games on the season. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is coming off a tough loss to Illinois in which the Badgers shot just 18.2 percent from the floor in the first half.
Wofford has zero starters who stand taller than 6-foot-6 in its starting lineup. Wisconsin’s forwards, Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer, measure 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-10, respectively.
With that being the case, size could play a major factor in which team is best able to set the tone for the game, something Leuer pointed to as being significant in a game like this when neither team is really familiar with the other.
“Once you step in between the lines, it’s all about who can control and impose their will on the other team,” Leuer said.
Additionally, in terms of enrollment, Wofford College has just 1,439 students, compared to 28,690 undergrads at the University of Wisconsin.
There are 15,587 living alumni of Wofford College; UW has 374,838.
Of course, Gard isn’t worried about the size of the two schools. He even noted that depth is one of the Terriers’ strengths.
“You only need five,” he said. “So, it really doesn’t matter. And they’ll play 10 regularly, sometimes 11. … They’ve subbed five at a time.”
As Wofford makes its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, Wisconsin will be competing in the Big Dance for the 12th straight year in its 16th appearance overall.
Just a year ago, though, the Badgers were in a situation similar to that of the Terriers. UW earned a No. 12 seed in 2009, matching up against fifth-seeded Florida State.
Despite moving from a No. 12 seed a year ago to a No. 4 seed today, the Badgers insist they are not approaching Friday’s game any differently.
“We’re going out to play the other team,” Nankivil said. “Whether we’re a 12 seed or a four seed or whatever seed we’ve been in the past, it’s still one game and the two teams are going to be out there regardless of seed.”
In their upset over Florida State, the Badgers were led by Jason Bohannon with 16 points, Nankivil with 14 points off the bench and Trevon Hughes with 10 points — two of which won the game for Wisconsin in overtime.
Hughes and Bohannon were just juniors in that game, but they were already showing signs of the leadership they have displayed this season. And it’s no secret that senior leadership is a common theme among teams that make deep runs in March.
As such, Hughes and Bohannon will likely be key to the Badgers’ future in the Tournament. With this being their last chance to make a deep run in the Big Dance, that’s a responsibility Wisconsin’s backcourt leaders will gladly accept.
Sounding like a true senior, Bohannon said the team will not take any game for granted.
“Every game’s important,” he said. “You can’t look past one team and expect to move on to the next round, because that’s when some team’s going to jump up and get you.”
That kind of “new season” mindset is just one reason why UW head coach Bo Ryan likes his team’s chances, having a pair of seniors in the backcourt. The other two reasons include his team’s ability on the boards and defensive end.
“That always gives you a pretty good chance,” Ryan said of having two senior guards. “You take all the percentages and say ‘What is it in tournaments?’ Guard play is extremely important; rebounding and defense will give you the best chance to stay alive.”