Saturday night's "third round" battle between Wisconsin and Kansas State features two teams trying to validate recent turnarounds.
As recently as Jan. 31, when disgruntled sophomore forward Wally Judge quit the team, the Wildcats (23-10) were a preseason Top 5 pick in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament at 14-8. Although thinner up front, Kansas State has only lost twice since then (both to Colorado), reeling off six straight wins to finish the regular season. Among them were victories over then-No. 1 Kansas and two other Top 25 teams. The fifth-seeded Wildcats then came out strong against underseeded Utah State and hung on for a five-point win in their tourney opener.
Wisconsin (24-8) limped into the NCAA Tournament as the Southeast region's No. 4 seed. But the Badgers put both offensive (Penn State) and defensive (Ohio State) woes behind them as they cruised past a treacherous Belmont squad Thursday. Much like Kansas State, the Badgers now have a chance to prove they are morphing into a contender in Tuscon rather than simply a high seed that can skate by against over-hyped underdogs.
Wisconisn is one of five Big Ten teams who posted impressive wins during the tournament's first full round of play. When Jon Leuer is talking national championship in pre-game huddles, you know this team is not satisfied yet with its season.
The Badgers can expect to see Frank Martin's trademark defense at every turn. Against an in-your-pocket defender, it will be even more important for Jordan Taylor to make wise decisions regarding how aggressive to be offensively. Wisconsin looked extremely efficient the other night when getting the ball to Leuer in the post became a priority. Taylor is more effective picking his spots playing off of the attention to Leuer.
Jacob Pullen (19.6 ppg) leads the three-guard attack for Kansas State, scoring 22 points and dishing out five assists against Utah State. The 6'1" senior returned for one final season after his star turn in last year's tournament, when he shot 17-of-36 (47%) on 3-pointers and averaged almost 23 ppg during the Wildcats' run to the Elite Eight.
Taylor and Pullen may well cancel each other out in the back court unless one of them goes supernova. Josh Gasser will get a few shots at guarding Pullen, as well as taking his turn on sophomore wing Rodney McGruder (11.5 ppg). Getting off to a good start will be key for Gasser as his offensive game and defensive game seem to feed off of each other.
The question that will need to be answered from a Badger perspective is whether Tim Jarmusz and Mike Bruesewitz can stay with Kansas State's third guard. If so, Wisconsin looks to be in good shape to take advantage of the Wildcats in the front court.
While the Badgers boast seniors Leuer and Keaton Nankivil in addition to sophomore Jared Berggren off the bench, Curtis Kelly is the only consistent threat for the Wildcats in the post. Kelly is a solid presence on the interior at 10.5 ppg and has scored in double figures in five straight games.
More generally, the winner of this game will likely succeed in two main areas: rebounding and free throw shooting.
Kansas State is a phenomenal offensive rebounding team, grabbing nearly 41% of their own caroms. That is the fourth-best rate in the country. Jamar Samuels and seven-foot reserve Jordan Henriquez-Roberts provide the rebounding support alongside Kelly. Conversely, Wisconsin is the eight-best team in terms of preventing offensive rebounds.
The problem for the Wildcats is that their aggressive style leads to a ton of fouls. They are among the worst at the number of free throw attempts allowed per field goal attempt. Kansas State also shoots a low percentage (65.9) from the stripe as a team.
Once again, though, UW is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Badgers usually settle for jump shots at an alarming rate. However, the team converts its few opportunities at the free throw line at a record-breaking 82.3% clip. If the team plays a balanced game offensively by getting Leuer the ball in position down low could find themselves in a great position to advance.
Coincidentally, the last time Wisconsin reached the Sweet 16 was three seasons ago after the No. 3 Badgers beat this same Kansas State program, 72-55, in impressive fashion. Wisconsin was the loaded Big Ten champion seeded third that year led by Brian Butch and Michael Flowers, while the upstart No. 11 Wildcats were led by freshman sensation Michael Beasley.