The 2017 NCAA Tournament tips off Thursday, captivating sports fans and destroying work productivity across the country for a few wonderful weeks, and this year there are lots of local angles to engage and entertain us, too.
The state’s top two basketball schools, Wisconsin and Marquette, are both participating for the first time since 2013, and both got head-scratching draws from the selection committee. Milwaukee will host six first- and second-round games at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, including two of UW’s Big Ten rivals. And there are two-dozen players with area ties competing in the tourney this season.
Of course, the Badgers, with six in-state guys, and the Golden Eagles, with five, lead the way, but 10 other teams have at least one Wisconsinite on their roster. Notably Iowa State, with four local players – all of whom are significant contributors – is one of the eight teams playing a first-round game at the Bradley Center, which will be a homecoming of sorts for its three Milwaukee natives. So if you want a non-Wisconsin team to root for, the Cyclones are probably a good pick; at least they’re better than the inexplicably over-seeded Minnesota Gophers.
(To listen to this week's tourney-themed episode of OnMilwaukee's podcast, The Postgame Tailgate, click here.)
Over the past decade, there's been an increase in the number of high school players from Wisconsin competing at the Division 1 level in college – especially at high-profile, major programs – and, while it can't quite be called a Dairy State basketball diaspora, many of those guys are choosing to take their talents elsewhere. Last year, there were 23 players from Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament; in 2015, it was 25. And this season that number is 24.
So where are those guys? How are they doing? And which of them will best showcase our state on the national stage? Here, we list the locally bred players in the NCAA tournament for you to follow and rank them based on who we think will have the biggest impact, from least to most.
It’s always a good idea to watch as much March Madness as possible, because it is a fun and great thing, but it’s even better when you’ve got a Wisconsin-connected reason to cheer.
24. Matt Ferris, Wisconsin
The redshirt sophomore guard from Appleton, who attended Xavier High School, takes the top (bottom) spot for the second year in a row. Ferris, a former walk-on, played 11 minutes this season, didn’t score a point and hasn’t gotten on the court since Jan. 24. But, along with teammate Aaron Moesch, Ferris (below left) will once again make a major impact off the court with the hilarious pair’s Moesch Madness viral videos.
23. Aaron Moesch, Wisconsin
The redshirt junior forward (above right) from Green Bay, who attended Southwest High School, is the eponymous founding member of Moesch Madness, which moves him down (up) the list. He played 40 minutes this season and scored three points, but failed to grow the spectacular Moesch-tache he sported two years ago during the Badgers’ Final Four run.
22. Cam Marotta, Marquette
The sophomore guard from Mequon, who went to Homestead High School, is a cheerleading, eternally optimistic, team-first reserve who knows and appreciates his towel-waving role. Marotta’s late father Marc played at Marquette, and Cam this season appeared in eight games, scoring five points in 18 total minutes. The 10th-seeded Golden Eagles face No. 7 seed South Carolina at 8:50 p.m. Friday in Greenville, S.C.
21. T.J. Schlundt, Wisconsin
The redshirt sophomore guard from Oconomowoc, who transferred from the local high school to St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy, hasn’t yet had the collegiate career of his dad, who played with Doc Rivers at Marquette. Schlund played 21 minutes and scored three points this season. The eighth-seeded Badgers play No. 9 Virginia Tech – coached by former Marquette head man Buzz Williams – at 8:40 p.m. Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
20. Brevin Pritzl, Wisconsin
The redshirt freshman guard from De Pere came to Madison as his high school’s all-time leading scorer. He missed most of last season with a foot injury, but returned this year and averaged 2.0 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.0 minutes per game. He had seven points and seven rebounds in the Badgers’ Feb. 19 win over No. 23 Maryland.
19. Cam Ward, Vermont
The junior guard from Marshall, who left as the school’s all-time leading scorer and ranked sixth in points in Wisconsin history, was a solid rotation player for the Catamounts in his first two seasons. But this year, Ward saw his playing time decrease by nine minutes; in a diminished role, he averaged 4.0 points and 1.7 assists in 14.9 minutes per game, though he did score 17 points in 18 minutes against UMass-Lowell earlier this season. The 13th-seeded Catamounts play No. 4 seed Purdue at 6:27 p.m. on Thursday in Milwaukee.
18. Matt Heldt, Marquette
The sophomore forward, who attended Neenah, has improved his body, refined his game and emerged as a useful player this season for the Golden Eagles. A physical hustler inside who stays within himself on offense, Heldt averaged 2.4 points and 2.9 rebounds in 13.0 minutes per game, shooting an eye-popping 71.8 percent from the field; he scored 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting with 10 rebounds in a win over St. John's.
17. Toby Hegner, Creighton
The junior forward from Berlin has great size (6-foot-10, 235 pounds) and is a good outside shooter (47.1 field-goal percentage, 45.6 three-point percentage), but his playing time and production have dropped from his first two seasons. Hegner averaged 4.9 points and 3.4 rebounds in 16.7 minutes per game and has been held scoreless in his last three games, though he did have eight points March 4 against Marquette. The No. 6 seed Bluejays face 11th-seeded Rhode Island at 3:30 p.m. on Friday in Sacramento.
16. Duane Wilson, Marquette
The redshirt junior from Milwaukee, who attended Dominican High School, is starting but playing 12 fewer minutes per game than last season. A poor-shooting tweener who is too small to play as a wing but doesn’t pass well (or eagerly) enough to be a point guard, Wilson put up just 4.8 points and 1.7 assists on 42.3 percent field-goal shooting (29.2 percent on threes) in 16.2 minutes this season. He had 11 points in the Golden Eagles’ upset win over No. 1 Villanova, but has been quiet of late, scoring just 18 total over his last six games.
15. Donovan Jackson, Iowa State
The junior guard from Milwaukee, who went to Piux X High School and Iowa Western Community College before joining the Cyclones, is one of four Wisconsinites on ISU’s roster. He scored 6.3 points in 16.6 minutes per game, shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 45.3 percent on threes. His playing time has dipped a little recently, but he’s still an important supporting player for fifth-seeded Iowa State, which takes on No. 12 Nevada at 8:57 p.m. on Thursday in Milwaukee.
14. Chris Howell, South Dakota State
The sophomore guard from Milwaukee, who attended Rufus King High School and then Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, was a late addition to the Jackrabbits’ roster and provides depth and versatility to the backcourt. In 16.0 minutes per game, he averaged 7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds, while shooting 52 percent from the field. He took only one three-pointer all season and missed it, and is not a long-range threat, but has scored in double figures in 10 of his last 11 games. South Dakota State, a 16 seed, plays No. 1 seed Gonzaga at 1 p.m. Thursday in Salt Lake City.
13. Garrison Goode, UC-Davis
The sophomore forward from River Hills, whose father played basketball at Northwestern, went to Dominican High School and won four state titles with former Maryland sensation and NBA draft pick Diamond Stone. Goode, an active energy player, averaged 2.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in 21.5 minutes per game. He makes his impact for the Aggies at the defensive end. UC Davis, a No. 16 seed, plays fellow 16-seed North Carolina Central at 5:40 p.m. Thursday in one of the First Four play-in games.
12. Darrell Bowie, Iowa State
Another Cyclone from Milwaukee, Bowie went to Tosa East for three years before transferring to La Jolla Prep (Calif.), and then attended Northern Illinois for his first three collegiate seasons. The senior forward posted 5.8 points and 4.1 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per game, shooting 47.7 percent on field goals and 43.9 percent on threes. He had 10 points in Iowa State’s Big 12 Tournament championship win over No. 11 West Virginia.
11. David Burrell, East Tennessee State
The junior forward was born in Milwaukee but attended Believe Prep Academy in Rock Hill, S.C., and then Southwest Tennessee Community College. Long and athletic, the versatile Burrell put up 7.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per game, shooting 40 percent on threes and 52.4 percent overall. He can defend multiple positions, and had six blocks in the Buccaneers’ Southern Conference tournament championship upset win over top-seeded UNC-Greensboro, but has scored just 14 total points in his last four games. East Tennessee State, a No. 13 seed, plays fourth-seeded Florida at 2:10 p.m. on Thursday in Orlando.
10. Jarvis Garrett, Rhode Island
The junior guard from Milwaukee attended Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., is playing 11 fewer minutes and scoring six fewer points than he was last year, but is still a key player for the Rams. Garrett, who averaged 6.5 points and 3.1 assists in 23.0 minutes this season, is not a good shooter (39.6 percent from the field, 31.7 percent from three-point range). In a win over VCU, he scored 12 points despite missing his only shot, getting to the line and making all 12 free throws. The 11th-seeded Rams play Hegner’s sixth-seeded Bluejays at 3:30 p.m. on Friday in Sacramento.
9. Zak Showalter, Wisconsin
The springy senior guard from Germantown, nicknamed "Showy," is a jack-of-all-trades lockdown defender for the Badgers. In 29.1 minutes per game, he averaged 8.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals, shooting 49.5 percent, including 39.7 percent on threes, and being named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team. The energetic athlete has picked it up offensively down the stretch, scoring in double figures in five of the last six games.
7. Darral Willis Jr., Wichita State
The junior forward from Madison, who went to Madison Memorial and Pearl River (Miss.) Community College, chose Wichita State over Arizona State, Marquette, LSU, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. A strong post defender and gifted offensive player that can score in multiple ways, Willis averaged 10.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in 16.8 minutes per game, while shooting 54.3 percent. The 10th-seeded Shockers face No. 7 seed Dayton – which has on its roster Dominican product and Giannis' little brother Kostas Antetokounmpo, who sat out this year – at 6:10 p.m. on Friday in Indianapolis.
8. Sam Hauser, Marquette
The precocious freshman guard is a prodigious three-point shooter. Hauser, who was named the Gatorade Wisconsin Boys Basketball Player of the Year after leading Stevens Point Area High School to an undefeated season and its second straight state title, has quickly become one of the Golden Eagles’ best offensive weapons. In 26.3 minutes per game, he averaged 8.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, shooting 47.0 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from behind the arc.
6. Luke Fischer, Marquette
The 6-foot-11 senior center from Germantown, who was also the Gatorade Player of the Year and won two state championships, went to Indiana for one semester before transferring. With the Golden Eagles, he’s become a leader as a throwback big man in the low post, averaging 11.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 23.9 minutes, while shooting 64.6 percent. Though he still doesn’t rebound well for his size and struggles with foul trouble, he’s come up big in big games before, scoring 18 and 15 points in Marquette wins over No. 7 Creighton and No. 1 Villanova, respectively.
5. Riley LaChance, Vanderbilt
The junior guard was the all-time leading scorer at Brookfield Central High School and is one of the best shooters the state has produced. A three-year contributor for the Commodores who was named to the 2014-15 SEC All-Freshman Team, LaChance put up 10.5 points, 3.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 31.2 minutes per game this season, shooting 46.6 percent from the field, 49.3 percent from three-point range and 86.8 percent from the free throw line. No. 9 Vanderbilt takes on No. 8 Northwestern at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
The most impact
4. Matt Thomas, Iowa State
The steady, sweet-shooting senior guard from Onalaska is an effortless scorer and floor leader for the Cyclones. Thomas has been a valuable player each of his four seasons, but this year was his best, as he averaged 12.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game, shooting 46.3 percent overall and 44 percent from distance. Thomas has scored in double figures in eight of his last 11 games, including 25 against Oklahoma State on Feb. 28.
3. Deonte Burton, Iowa State Cyclones
The fourth and final Wisconsinite, Burton has the closest ties to his hometown of Milwaukee. After a decorated high school career at Vincent, Burton signed with Marquette, but transferred after the first semester. The senior guard has an unconventional body (6-5, 250 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan) and a funky-but-effective game. In 29.3 minutes per game, he filled the stat sheet with 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.4 blocks, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 38.1 percent on threes. Burton, who has scored in double figures in 15 of his last 17 games, can be enigmatic; he went off for 31 points against Oklahoma and 29 against third-ranked Kansas, but had just two points, missing all six shots, versus Texas Tech.
2. Trae Jefferson, Texas Southern Tigers
The pint-sized freshman guard is from Milwaukee, but he attended Believe Prep Academy. Jefferson is a dynamic, electrifying offensive player who can dribble, drive and pass as well as any freshman in the country. In 33.2 minutes per game this season for the Tigers, he averaged 14.9 points, 3.3 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals. Jefferson hasn’t shot the ball well in college – 37.5 percent from the field and 31.1 percent from three – but he scored a career-high 28 points against Alabama State last week and is a threat to take over offensively any game he's playing.
1. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
The senior guard from La Crosse (Aquinas) has never been flashy, but he’s as dependable, experienced and important as anyone in the tournament, and certainly vital to the Badgers’ success. When Koenig makes shots and takes care of the ball, Wisconsin wins; in 31.0 minutes per game, he averaged 14.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists, with a 41.6 field-goal percentage, including 38.7 percent on threes, and an 89.8 free-throw percentage. With teammate Nigel Hayes stalling this season, Koenig has become more of a go-to player on offense. Good point guard play is essential in the NCAA Tournament, and Wisconsin will go as far as Koenig takes them.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.