CHICAGO — As scheduling opponents go, Wisconsin and Ole Miss don’t share many similarities. But Badgers coach Bo Ryan knows one result certainly will keep his players’ attention this week.
“They beat a team that crushed us earlier in the year,” Ryan said.
He was referring to Mississippi’s 66-63 victory against Florida during the SEC championship on Sunday. That’s the same Florida team that demolished Wisconsin 74-56 in Gainesville way back in November.
If a single score isn’t enough to make a determination on one team, Mississippi’s 26 victories while playing in a power-six conference likely provide plenty or proof. In other words, the NCAA tournament selection committee didn’t do the Badgers any favors when it revealed its brackets Sunday night.
Wisconsin (23-11), which earned a No. 5 seed in the West Region, will play No. 12 seed Mississippi (26-8) on Friday in Kansas City, Mo. The winner will move on to face off against either No. 4. Kansas State (27-7) or play-in teams Boise State (21-10) or La Salle (21-9).
“They’re a good team, and they deserve to be in the tournament, and I think they were a lock if they wouldn’t have won the SEC tournament,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said of Ole Miss. “Marshall Henderson is the big name that comes to mind when you think about Ole Miss. He’s a good player, a high energy player. We’re looking forward to it.”
Most college basketball fans likely have already heard of Henderson, one of the most entertaining and controversial players in the game. Henderson has drawn the ire of teams — and opposing fans — across the SEC for his flamboyant on-court behavior. During the conference title game on Sunday, he mocked Florida’s famous “Gator chomp” after burying a long 3-pointer in the second half.
Henderson averages a team-best 20.1 points per game. Forward Murphy Holloway is second on the team in scoring (14.6 points) and first in rebounding (9.6) for a team that loves to push the pace. Ole Miss ranks 11th in the country in scoring offense at 77.9 points per game, meaning its opening-round game against Wisconsin will provide a stark contrast in styles. Wisconsin hasn’t scored more than 77 points since Dec. 29 and ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense (55.9 points per game).
After the pairing was announced, Wisconsin players weren’t complaining about their seemingly difficult draw to reach the second weekend of the big dance. They were simply happy to be included in a city relatively close to campus. A drive from Madison to Kansas City is roughly eight hours. Some bracket projections had Wisconsin traveling as far as Salt Lake City or San Jose to play in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s cool to be in Kansas City,” said Badgers center Jared Berggren, a Minnesota native. “Something that’s fairly close. I already talked to my parents. They texted me saying they’re making the drive down. My high school coach, too. It’s something that’s easy for our fans to get to. Hopefully we’ll get good support out there.”
Most of Wisconsin’s players didn’t know much about Ole Miss immediately after the selection show. But Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said his team certainly wouldn’t look beyond the Rebels to a possible meeting with Kansas State and former Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
“You can’t look past anything,” Bruesewitz said. “We’ve proven it and everybody else in the country has proven it that anybody can go down any night. That’s going to make for a wild tournament.
“We’ve got to knock guys down systematically. One team at a time. That’s how you’ve got to approach the tournament. But I like our draw. I think we’ve got a good shot of making some noise.”
Gonzaga (31-2) earned the No. 1 seed in the West Region, with Ohio State (26-7) at No. 2 and New Mexico (29-5) at No. 3. Ohio State defeated Wisconsin 50-43 in the Big Ten tournament championship game on Sunday — the teams’ third game against each other this season.
If a fourth matchup with Ohio State materializes, it wouldn’t occur until the Elite Eight. That means the Badgers get at least three games without having to face another Big Ten opponent — good news considering it has been the most difficult conference in the country. In Wisconsin’s last 19 conference games including the Big Ten tournament, it played 11 teams that were ranked at the time.
“I’m hyped,” Bruesewitz said. “It’s about time we stopped kicking the crap out of each other.”
Wisconsin’s first crack at playing someone else is just five days away, and the scouting report on Ole Miss already has begun.
“Every team that’s in is good,” Ryan said. “Every team has had their runs. Every team that’s in the tournament has shown they can get things done. I would say Ole Miss has shown they can do quite a few things.”