Preview: Wisconsin Looks For Second Straight Sweet Sixteen

By Jeff Robbins Staff Writer

MADISON, Wis. — Well, that was a surprise.

In an opening day that held about as much shock as the ending of a typical Wonder Pets episode (the bracket busters would eventually come a day later), perhaps the biggest stunner in Thursday?s 16 NCAA tournament games was the final score of the East Region matchup between Wisconsin and Montana.

The staggering thing wasn?t that the No. 4 Badgers beat the No. 13 Grizzles; the shocker was Wisconsin?s margin of victory: The 24-point gap was the largest of the day and Bucky?s most lopsided win since the Big Ten opener against Nebraska back on Dec. 27.

Holding Montana to less than 50 points was business as usual for Bo Ryan?s No. 1-ranked scoring defense, but what Badger fans surely must have been pleased to see was another potent offensive outing; the 73 points was the third time in the month of March that Wisconsin hit the 70-point mark. That?s after the Badgers hit that scoring milestone just once in January and February combined.

After early defensive lapses ? the score was a close 30-26 after Ryan Evans committed his third turnover with about five minutes to play in the first half ? there wasn?t much to be unhappy with about Thursday?s win: Despite totaling five turnovers, Evans led all scorers with 18, five players scored at least eight, Jordan Taylor hit on three of five 3-point attempts, and the Badgers silenced Montana?s star guard Will Cherry, harassing him into a miserable 3-of-14 shooting day and holding him to just nine points overall.

But teams that win in the NCAA tournament?s “second round,” are not afforded time to celebrate. The Badgers are back at it again Saturday in Albuquerque, where they will take on No. 5 Vanderbilt at 5:10 p.m. CST. The Commodores, despite not scoring a field goal in the final 5:22, reached the third round by holding off No. 12 Harvard on Thursday by a final score of 79-70.

So can Bo Ryan lead his Badgers to their second straight Sweet Sixteen? Here are the Channel 3000 3 (plus bonus) Storylines to the Game.

1. One, Twice, Three Times A Letdown. Badger fans who think that Wisconsin has been underachieving in the NCAA tournament obviously haven?t been paying close attention to the Commodores. This year?s tournament marks their fourth straight appearance as a fifth or higher seed (they missed the tourney entirely in 2009), and it?s the first time in those four seasons they haven?t been upset in their opener. Will the Commodores simply be happy to have that opening loss monkey off their backs, or, coming off their SEC championship game victory over tournament favorite Kentucky, is this a supremely confident and dangerous group? The Badgers will find out Saturday.

2. No Time For A Brick House. In their opening round win over Montana, the Badgers had great shooting for the fourth time this month, connecting on 48 percent of their shots from the floor and an impressive 10-for-19 from 3-point land. Fans can look at this as either a trend, or a sign that the team is due for one of their more mediocre offensive showings. Given that Vanderbilt is a higher-scoring team than Montana (and they put up more points against stiffer SEC competition than the Grizzlies did in the weaker Big Sky conference), Saturday would not be a good time for one of those more mediocre offensive showings.

3. Albuquerque, You Bring Me Up. On Thursday, Montana simply wilted down the stretch after hanging with Wisconsin for much of the first half. Many speculated on the effect the New Mexico altitude was having on the Grizzlies? thin rotation. The Commodores are not only a much deeper team, they are also a much more experienced team, with four seniors in their starting rotation. The Badgers outlasted the Grizzlies on Thursday by getting quality and quantity from their bench, particularly from Rob Wilson, who went 28 minutes while scoring 10 points. Wisconsin will need those bench minutes again Saturday.

4. Defending Jenkins Will Not Be Easy Like Sunday Morning. Montana found early offensive success against the Badgers in the paint, but Vanderbilt?s true strength lies in their outside shooting, where they ranked 21st in the country this season in 3-point percentage (.391). Their main weapon on the perimeter is junior John Jenkins, who is just two 3-point buckets away from tying the all-time SEC record for 3-pointers in a season. The Badgers can?t be expected to shut Jenkins down as well as they silenced Montana?s Will Cherry, but if they can keep Jenkins in check, they?ll take the air out of the Commodores? offense.

5. Focus On The Right Here ?N Now. It would be tempting for the Badgers to look ahead beyond Saturday?s game given what is happening at the top of the East Region. No. 3 Florida State barely escaped Friday?s game with No. 14 St. Bonaventure, nothing No. 2 Ohio State could show Wisconsin in a third game would surprise them, and people who have picked No. 1 Syracuse to make it to the Final Four have already torn up and thrown out their brackets. The road out of the East is looking progressively easier, but the Badgers have to focus on Vanderbilt first. With Bo Ryan and Jordan Taylor at the helm — and the promise of a few days off before the round of 16 begins — maintaining focus should not be a problem.

Any team with the experience of Vanderbilt ? their starters have 451 career starts compared to Wisconsin?s 265 ? has to be taken seriously. Throw in their SEC title game win over Kentucky and you?ve got a serious Final Four competitor. But the Commodores have struggled mightily in the tournament in recent years while the Badgers are coming off their most lopsided NCAA tournament win ever.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 65, Vanderbilt 59.