Badgers screen out NCAA tournament projections

Wisconsin players say they pay no attention to faux tournament matchups until the real field of 68 is revealed. Not only will their families not make plane reservations because of them, but also players have seen how irrelevant seeds can be.

Kyle Terada/Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Scan the latest NCAA tournament projections 10 days before Selection Sunday, and a general picture begins to emerge about Wisconsin’s potential path. Let’s take, for example, three of the most scrutinized prognosticators this time of year: ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm and USA Today’s Shelby Mast.

The verdict: All three list Wisconsin as a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region.

You might be thinking: Hey, that’s great, right? Time to book a hotel reservation and get the party started.

Well, not so fast.

You see, all three also have Wisconsin opening tournament play in a different city: Lunardi places the Badgers in Omaha, Neb., Palm has UW in Louisville, Ky., and Mast sends the team to Columbus, Ohio.

One can imagine, then, how much of a headache following all the projections can be for the participants. That’s why Badgers players say, almost universally, that they pay no attention to seeds, brackets and faux tournament matchups until the real field of 68 is revealed.

"I know Joe Lunardi is going to throw out his predictions," Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. "Those could be completely wrong. All four of his No. 1 seeds could lose this week and next week there goes that. We never really look at projections. I know my parents aren’t going to buy plane tickets to where we’re supposed to be on projections. So we’ve just got to wait until we see and find out."

While all the tournament projections can be fun for fans, there is still the important matter of actually playing what remains of the regular-season schedule for players. For that reason, Badgers guard Josh Gasser said two weeks ago that listening to pundits at this stage of year was "all crap."

The most vital element, Gasser reiterated this week, was an old cliche about focusing on the process, staying in the moment and — yes — "taking it one game at a time." Gasser’s most immediate concern is for No. 6 Wisconsin (26-3, 14-2) to earn the outright Big Ten regular-season title at Minnesota (17-12, 6-10) at 6 p.m. Thursday and clinch the top seed in the conference tournament. All the rest, Gasser said, would take of itself in the NCAA tournament based on the team’s play through next week.

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"Obviously I want for our team and we all want to be the highest seed we can possibly be," Gasser said. "It’ll help you out in the long run. But at the same time, it’s more about matchups than if you’re a one seed, two seed, three seed. I don’t think it matters too much."

Badgers forward Nigel Hayes noted he learned from a young age watching the tournament on television how irrelevant NCAA tournament seeds can truly be. And he added that all anyone needed to do for proof was take a look at last year’s Final Four. Yes, Florida reached the Final Four as a No. 1 seed, while Wisconsin was the lone No. 2 seed there. But No. 7 seed UConn won the national championship against No. 8 seed Kentucky.

"Who were the four one seeds and the four two seeds last year?" Hayes said. "Who won the national championship last year? It wasn’t one of those guys. So that clearly shows that wherever you are put really doesn’t matter."

Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker said there have been times this season when it’s been difficult not to think about the postseason. When UW returned all but one player in its playing rotation off a Final Four team a year ago, the Badgers became a favorite to win this year’s national championship. And for long stretches this season, Wisconsin has thoroughly dominated opponents, lending credence to those title thoughts. At 26-3, the team has equaled the best start in program history.

But to get caught up in how well Wisconsin has played or where the team deserves to go in the NCAA tournament would be a mistake, Dekker said.

"I think we have a good team that can kind of just focus on the task at hand and not get too far ahead of ourselves," he said. "I just think we’re told that all the time by coach that you kind of just start doing it by habit, just not worrying about the outside stuff. But we’re young, too, and sometimes you think about that and what you want to do.

"It seems like everywhere you go, people say, ‘We’ll see you at the Final Four.’ It’s like, ‘You don’t realize how hard it is to get there.’ Hopefully they’re right and hopefully we can make that run."

Gophers talk: If the season ended now, Minnesota would earn the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten tournament. But several Wisconsin players indicated the Gophers’ conference record (6-10) was deceiving because they were a better team than that record indicated.

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Minnesota lost five consecutive games to open Big Ten play, but the Gophers have gone 6-5 since that stretch, which includes quality road wins against Iowa and most recently Michigan State, 96-90, in overtime last Thursday.

"Not many teams do that," Dekker said. "And they cause some matchup problems. There’s some things they did well down here. They slow the game down a little bit, but then they went to East Lansing and sped the game up and scored 96, so you don’t know what they’re going to bring."

Wisconsin defeated Minnesota 63-53 in the team’s first matchup this season on Feb. 21 at the Kohl Center. But Badgers players haven’t forgotten an 81-68 loss at Minnesota last season, which occurred during a stretch in which Wisconsin lost five of six league games.

"They kicked our butt," Gasser said. "We’ve got to go down there and get some revenge down there. They’re going to bring it. They’re going to be amped up, ready to go. They’re confident coming off a big win, so we’ve got to be right there with them."

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