MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers are heading into the final stretch of the regular season, with just five games remaining after Sunday's win over Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The end of the regular season means that the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament are both on the horizon.
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With Selection Sunday exactly four weeks away, the BadgerBlitz.com staff got together to give their predictions on how the Badgers and the rest of the country's premier programs will fare in the NCAA Tournament.
How far do you see this Wisconsin team going in the NCAA tournament? What about this team could lead you to believe they are capable of making a run? What about this team makes you believe an early round exit is possible?
Jon Gorman: Sweet 16. As we have seen, this is a very inconsistent team, capable of beating now third-ranked Florida, or losing to Northwestern. Because of that, it is hard to project them too deep into the tournament, since one never knows which Badger team will show up. If in between now and tourney time Wisconsin can polish their interior defense, a Final Four run is certainly possible. But for now, I'm sticking with Sweet 16.
Jon McNamara: I think the development of Nigel Hayes could put Wisconsin in line to make a run in the tournament. From the start of the year, I felt defending and rebounding in the post would be big weakness, but Hayes' presence off the bench has been big down low. That said, guard play is crucial in March and Traevon Jackson, though he's shown the ability to hit big shots for the Badgers, worries me. I just see this team going cold from the outside and getting bounced in the Round of 32.
Zack Miller: The knock on Wisconsin teams in the past has been their inability to score in bunches - something necessary for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. This season's team, hold a few games here and there, has proven that it is capable of scoring with anyone in the country. I firmly believe this is the best suited team for the NCAA Tournament Bo Ryan has had since the Alando Tucker led squad in 2007. If the Badgers can get through the first couple of rounds against weaker teams in potential "trap games" then I think this group has what it takes to make a surprise run at the Elite 8. Getting their first couple of games in Milwaukee could prove to be huge, as the Badgers have had trouble with weaker opponents this season (see Northwestern, Indiana).
John Veldhuis: I think the Sweet 16 is a pretty fair guess at this point. Getting outside of the rough and tumble Big Ten will be good for them in the early stages, but we haven't seen them put together enough "complete" performances recently for me to say that they'll make it any farther than that. They have the potential to go farther but we've also seen that big, physical teams can give them trouble. The pod they get placed in is going to have a huge impact on how far they end up going.
What player will be key for the Badgers' success or instrumental in their failure?
Gorman: Traevon Jackson. The Badgers play well when Jackson plays well. The junior point guard is the only Badger guard capable of penetrating on a consistent basis and he prevents their offense from going stagnant. When his mid-range game is going and he isn't turning the ball over, the Badgers are clicking offensively. When he is missing shots and not getting others involved, the play stagnates. The Badgers will need "good Trae" if they want a deep tournament run.
McNamara: As much as I'd like to go with Jackson, I really think it will fall on Sam Dekker. He's probably the one player Wisconsin has who can take over the game offensively and currently leads the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game. When Wisconsin needs a big bucket late in the game, Dekker has to be the go-to guy.
Miller: Josh Gasser and I don't even think it's close. March Madness is all about guard play and if you can't stop the opposing team's guards from scoring then you might as well not even show up. Gasser has proven game in and game out that he is the best defender on this team and he sets the defensive tone for the rest of the guys. Each game can see a new player get hot offensively for the Badgers, but the team's defensive ceiling lay squarely on the shoulders of #21.
Veldhuis: The Badgers can win without big contributions from Sam Dekker, but if they want to make a deep run into the tournament he'll need to hit another gear. If he can play aggressively and attack the rim as well as make shots from deep it will really give them an edge because he'll be a matchup problem for a lot of teams. At the same time if Frank Kaminsky or Nigel Hayes end up in foul trouble early on that could spell an early tournament exit.
What team from the Big Ten do you think will go furthest in the tournament?
Gorman: I like Michigan State to make a legitimate Final Four/championship push. They have the requisite size, leadership and strength to get it done, and a coach who has been there. If Keith Appling and Branden Dawson can come back healthy and re-enter the lineup with no hitches, this is a scary team.
McNamara: Michigan State always gets hot at the right time and I think the Spartans will make the deepest run in March. I know this isn't a huge leap of faith, but once Tom Izzo's group nears full strength, I think they can cause some damage in the tournament. Adreian Payne is a load in the post while guards Keith Appling, Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris, among others, are tournament tested.
Miller: I'm tempted to go with Michigan State here just because of Izzo's track record and current streak of getting all of his four-year players to at least one Final Four since what feels like the dawn of time. Having said that, it's only a matter of time before all of the injuries begin to catch up with the Spartans so I'm going to go with the Iowa Hawkeyes. Fran McCaffery is on pace to become just the 10th coach all-time to lead four teams to the NCAA Tournament and his Hawkeyes are hungry to make a run in the big dance after going to the NIT the past two seasons. Their worst loss is a 76-69 defeat at the hands of Ohio State. That's it. No home losses to Northwestern, no road losses to Indiana. The Hawkeyes can be scary good and I believe Roy Devyn Marble will become the star of the tournament.
Veldhuis: I always pick Michigan State for this type of question just because they have the history to back it up. When they get healthy that's going to be a dangerous draw for any team, so I can see them making a pretty deep run.
Final Four predictions:
Gorman: Syracuse, Michigan State, Florida and Arizona.
McNamara: Syracuse, Michigan State, Kansas and Louisville.
Miller: Syracuse, Florida, Kansas and Kentucky.
Veldhuis: Michigan State, Arizona, Florida and Kansas
National Champion prediction:
Gorman: Florida's a team that is getting hot as the season goes on, and they will ride that to an NCAA championship.
Miller: In a Final Four that will be all about Tyler Ennis, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle, the Florida Gators and their senior-heavy group will cut down the nets for the third time under Billy Donovan. The Gators are currently on a 17-game winning streak. The only other two times in school history they won 17 straight? Yup. They won the National Championship.
Veldhuis: The Big Ten is supposed to be the best league in conference basketball right now- the problem is a Big Ten team hasn't won a national title since 2000. That ends this year, though when a healthy Michigan State team wins it all.
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