Virginia Tech is excited to be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. Wisconsin is miffed at its lowest seeding in eight years.
The No. 8 seed in the East Region, Wisconsin will face ninth-seeded Virginia Tech late Thursday night in an East Region first-round game at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. The winner will advance to likely face reigning national champion and No. 1 overall seed Villanova.
The Badgers have won more NCAA Tournament games over the past three years (11) than any other program and are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 in each of those seasons. This is the lowest they have been seeded since 2009, when they were a No. 12 and upset Florida.
Wisconsin (25-9) was aiming for a higher seed this year with four seniors who were on the roster and two who played in the national title game two years ago (forward Nigel Hayes and guard Koenig). The Badgers were in good position after starting 21-3 but had a stretch of five losses in six games before rallying to reach the Big Ten championship game, where they lost to Michigan 71-56 on Sunday.
“Obviously, we thought we might have a higher seed than that,” senior guard Zak Showalter said. “We’ll have a chip on our shoulder and be ready to go.”
Coach Greg Gard said the Badgers need to put the Selection Sunday snub behind them.
“We’ve got to move on and play the game,” Gard said. “We can’t worry about what was decided in a committee room.”
The Hokies (22-10) had a different reaction to being seeded one line lower than Wisconin. Coach Buzz Williams choked back tears when he told fans on Sunday, “this is just the beginning.”
After the bracket announcement, Williams tweeted out a video of him line dancing to celebrate the school’s return to the Big Dance. The caption noted Virginia Tech’s RPI ranking was 246 when Williams took over the program three years ago after coaching at Marquette.
While Wisconsin is playing in its 19th straight NCAA Tournament, the fourth-longest active streak, this is Virginia Tech’s first appearance since 2007.
“Odds are, no matter who we played, unless it was Northwestern, we were going to have more newbies,” Williams said.
The Hokies have relied on two fifth-year seniors this year, including one who previously played in the NCAA Tournament — Maryland transfer Seth Allen, who is averaging 13.4 points on 54 percent shooting (45 percent from 3-point range).
Zach LeDay, a South Florida transfer, leads the Hokies in scoring (16.3 points) and rebounding (7.4) while shooting 53 percent. Both Allen and LeDay come off the bench.
Virginia Tech was weakened inside by a season-ending knee injury to second-leading rebounder and double-figure scorer Chris Clarke, but has compensated by shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc, a school record that ranks ninth nationally.
Despite its lower seeding, Wisconsin remains one of the strongest defensive teams in the country, ranking ninth in the KenPom efficiency rankings. The Badgers rarely foul, give up offensive rebounds or allow easy baskets inside.
Koenig leads the Badgers in scoring at 14.1 points per game. Sophomore center Ethan Happ averages 13.9 points on 58 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds. Hayes averages 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.
This will be the second all-time meeting between the schools. Wisconsin won 74-72 at Virginia Tech in 2008.
BOTTOM LINE: This group of Badgers is tournament tough with 11 NCAA wins and three Sweet 16 appearances over the past three seasons — more than any other school. Wisconsin has made the national quarterfinals five times in the past six years. Virginia Tech is in the NCAA field for the first time since 2007.
ALL ALONE: Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ was the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring (14.6), rebounding (8.6), assists (3.0), blocks (1.6) and steals (2.3) during conference play.
B1G BEATERS: The Hokies already have two wins over Big Ten opponents this season, defeating Nebraska and Michigan in back-to-back games in November. This is only Virginia Tech’s second game against Wisconsin. The Badgers defeated the Hokies 74-72 in 2008.
KEONIG’S KLUTCH: When the clock is ticking down, Badgers guard Bronson Koenig isn’t afraid to put it up. He’s made 34 of 66 3-pointers in the final five minutes over the past two seasons.
BUZZING ALONG: Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams has turned around the school’s program in just three seasons. Williams came to Blacksburg, Virginia, after six seasons at Marquette, where he led the Golden Eagles to five NCAA appearances and a regional final in 2012-13. Williams went 3-3 against Wisconsin while at Marquette.