It’s been a decade since the Wisconsin Badgers pulled into Milwaukee and called it home for a March weekend, and Bo Ryan’s 26-win squad can only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.
A Big Ten champion in 2004, the Badgers drew a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and after barely escaping a feisty Richmond squad in the first round, the third-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers knocked off the Badgers.
Wisconsin comes in as the eighth overall seed of the 2014 tournament, and the No. 2 seed in the West Region. They will essentially host the American University Eagles, the Patriot League Tournament champions, on Thursday afternoon.
"We're just excited to be in the tournament, first of all, and then being a two seed in Milwaukee, I mean, it's going to be playing close to home, just means you did something good this year," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said.
"You get rewarded for what you've done. But we've been scrolling through our phones a little bit looking up American stuff, and they seem to be a really good defensive team, just looking at the scores, and heard they run a Princeton offense, which we're somewhat familiar with in terms of covering (Northwestern) the last few years. So, I mean, it's going to be a tough game."
American University (20-12) scores just 63.9 points per game (316th in the country) but they are seventh in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 49.5 percent. They work the clock and rarely take low percentage shots and have three players that ended the year shooting 50 percent or higher from the field.
The Eagles are also eighth in the nation defensively, allowing just 58.6 points per game.
It’s the type of team that can put a scare into a "bigger name" opponent, and the Badgers know this.
"It's March," Badgers guard Ben Brust said. "Teams didn't get here just by the luck of the draw; they got here with hard work over the whole year. So whoever you play is going to bring it. It's not just going to be given to you. You've just got to go out there and take it. Last year we didn't make enough shots as the game happened. Just got to be the aggressor and the one making the statements. You can't be on your heels."
Panthers sent East
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a Horizon League Tournament title, and they were rewarded with a No. 15 seed in the East region. There, they will face No. 2 seed Villanova, also the No. 3 team in the nation.
"I’ve watched a few of their games obviously when they came in and I’ve seen them on television very talented," Panthers head coach Rob Jeter said. "The guard play is great. We just have to see how they’re going to play us."
The Wildcats won the Big East regular season championship, as their only losses came at the hands of then-undefeated Syracuse and twice to Creighton. They then fell to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament.
Villanova is led by three players, 6-foot, 6-inch guards James Bell (14.5 points per game) and Darrun Hilliard II (14.3) and 6-7 forward JayVaughn Pinkston. They get up and down the court, scoring 78.5 points per game (30th in nation) and move the ball around with 15.6 assists per game (20th). They can give up some points however, as opponents have topped 70 points 10 times.
The Panthers (21-13), who some might say underachieved during the regular season with a 7-9 Horizon League record in hindsight, have averaged 70.9 points per game while allowing 70.5 points. For them, Thursday night will be about raising their level of intensity over and above the highly-touted Wildcats.
"They’re going to be ready compete and we’re just going to match their energy and bring more energy than them," Panthers forward Matt Tiby said.
Added guard Jordan Aaron: "I know that they’re a tough, gritty team. They’ve made the tournament so many years and I know they’re going to come ready to play and we’re just going to go out there and match their aggressiveness. We’re going to be ready to play."
The two state teams participating in the NCAA Tournament are on opposite sides of the spectrum – the Badgers the heavy favorite, hoping to hold serve over a 15 seed as the Panthers wish to create a true Cinderella story with a major upset.
Since the tournament expanded 29 years ago, a 15 seed has beaten a two just four times – so while history is certainly on the Badgers side and not the Panthers, trust that neither squad is worrying too much about that.
"I think they know what's at stake, and you have to win more than one game, but you can't win two without winning one," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "It's all the same clichés that come out all the time. But our guys, it won't be because anybody's overlooked. It won't be because they're not prepared for it. It's just going to be who plays the best 40 minutes."
"It’s exciting," Panthers guard Steve McWhorter said. "Competition – and we’re ready to compete at the highest level."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.