The Wisconsin Badgers return to the West regional of the NCAA tournament with the sort of expectations that have been unseen in the history of UW sports.
Sure, the Badgers have had excitement coming into previous postseasons, but this is the first time ever it's Final Four or Bust. No one's going to say boo if Arizona wins in Los Angeles, but this is a Wisconsin squad looking for more nets to cut and trophies for Frank Kaminsky to rub sensually.
There's going to be a step up in competition for the Badgers to get to the Final Four, but this is a bracket with a lot of offensive firepower and a lot of talented mid-majors that could cause chaos and strife.
Also, there's a lot of déjà vu in the region. Plenty of teams are coming back into the region. Let's meet them as they stand now.
2. Arizona Wildcats
Second-round matchup: No. 15 Texas Southern (1:10 p.m. CT Thursday; Portland, Ore.; TNT)
Never let it be said the NCAA doesn't have a sense of narrative humor. Last season, the Badgers and Wildcats had a classic confrontation for the right to play Kentucky in Anaheim. This year, the seeding expects a rematch for the right to play Kentucky in Los Angeles, which as baseball tells us, is a part of Anaheim. Rebounding terror Aaron Gordon is in the NBA, but Brandon Ashley is healthy for this tournament. The Wildcats are long and they can lock down you down low. I mean, unless you have Kaminsky, right?
Fun Fact: Head coach Sean Miller is one of the more underrated coaches come tournament time. He's never cracked the Final Four, but he has a 14-7 record in seven tournament appearances. For comparison's sake, a .667 winning percentage is tied with Rollie Massimino, and ahead of greats like Jim Valvano and Denny Crum.
Personal Threat Level: I would be stunned if they don't get to the Elite Eight. Still a threshold guardian.
3. Baylor Bears
Second-round matchup: No. 14 Georgia State (12:40 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville, Fla.; TBS)
Scott Drew is back and he's back with a team similar to last season. Sure, Brady Heslip and Isaiah Austin have moved on. But the Bears had players step up. Rico Gathers is a low-post force that averages a double-double. Royce O'Neale is a versatile piece, hitting 43 percent from beyond the arc and grabbing nearly six rebounds per game. As a team, Baylor has four players that can hit better than 38 percent from beyond the arc. They get hot at the right time and they'll knock off anybody in the country.
Fun Fact: You might not see much if any of Deng Deng, but know he exists and plays for Baylor.
Personal Threat Level: It would be an upset to see Baylor beat Arizona. Not a "shock the world" sort of upset, but the seven ranked opponents Baylor beat aren't on Arizona's level. The Bears are a sexy upset victim for those pool weirdos who want to brag they totally called it, but this is likely a Sweet 16 team.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels
Second-round matchup: No. 13 Harvard (6:20 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TNT)
If I'm ever asked onto Inside the Actors Studio -- and don't you dare tell me I won't be -- I have a favorite word. It's "mercurial." And if you're looking at the most mercurial team in the West region, North Carolina is it. At the Tar Heels' peak, they could cause a lot of problems for the draw with two strong rebounders (Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson are each a shade under eight boards per game) and Marcus Paige is the sort of creative scorer guard who had preseason All-American written all over him.
Fun Fact: Bronson Koenig and J.P. Tokoto were both recruited by Wisconsin and North Carolina. As both teams grabbed one and they will likely see lots of time on the floor, there is no way possible this will be mentioned on a potential Sweet 16 broadcast.
Personal Threat Level: Spoiler: I'll talk about Harvard possibly shocking the Tar Heels here. That said, they're also a team with the post presence and attacking guard that could give them the "random seed" trip to the Final Four. They're the Charlie Kelly Memorial Wild Card of the bracket.
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
Second-round matchup: No. 12 Wofford (8:50 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TNT)
Kentucky is the obvious and Vegas favorite, but did you know those Wildcats didn't have the SEC player of the year? That was Arkansas. Bobby Portis is the sort of low-post presence that helps make the fast-paced play of the Whoo Pigs that much more dangerous. Leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, he's worthy of a touch of the ball every time down the floor in a fast-paced, move-the-ball sort of offense. The Razorbacks hit their threes, and they're a dangerous sort of tough out in this tournament.
Fun Fact: You want to know how long it's been since Arkansas signed a McDonald's All American a.k.a. Bobby Portis? Over 20 years. The last one was Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson. It was so long ago, Badger fans were thrilled by just getting to the NIT.
Personal Threat Level: A patient, efficient offense that takes care of the ball and hits the glass hard is a team that matches up well with the Razorbacks. A loss to Wofford isn't completely crazy. Beating North Carolina isn't either. But, and especially if Traevon Jackson is ready for the Sweet 16, the Badgers match up really well here.
6. Xavier Musketeers
Second-round matchup: No. 11 Ole Miss (3:10 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TBS)
Xavier is kind of like Willy Loman. Liked; never really well liked. The Musketeers always seem to get a game or two when they make the tournament, but you're rarely going to see some dude on the squad just dominating fools. They play offense in the most moderate fashion possible. A lot of guys score a little (five players average at least eight points a game), there are two pretty good post players in Matt Stainbrook and Trevon Bluiett. They're probably a little over-seeded No. 6, but this is a solid, well-coached squad.
Fun Fact: Stainbrook is a part-time Uber driver. Which probably makes you like him less if you've heard of Uber.
Personal Threat Level: Being a young team that thrives on being decent at everything against a First Four winner that has a game they can make Xavier play is a signal that they're not going to be a future Badger opponent.
7. Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Second-round matchup: No. 10 Ohio State (3:40 p.m. CT Thursday; Portland; TNT)
You're going to have to wonder just how the tournament would have gone for Shaka Smart if Briante Weber didn't tear his ACL. Sure, VCU's previous tournament success came against three really good teams in Richmond, Davidson and Dayton, but he was the glue guy for those Rams and in a tournament with a lot of good offensive guard play, his defense made the Havoc go. Treveon Graham has a versatile offensive game and Melvin Johnson can shoot the lights out, but they've got a player to win for and not a player to win with.
Fun Fact: Johnson likes attacking the basket and throwing up a floater or two. In his younger days, he would call that the Melvin.
Personal Threat Level: If Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell doesn't take advantage of the injury, Arizona's T.J. McConnell will. Wisconsin likely avoids the trap.
8. Oregon Ducks
Big Ten-centric NCAA tournament preview
Speaking of weaknesses, how did Wisconsin lose to Rutgers in a game of men's college basketball in the year 2015? This will haunt me forever.
Second-round matchup: No. 9 Oklahoma State (5:50 p.m. CT Friday; Omaha, Neb.; TBS)
Dana Altman has been unfavorably compared to Steve Alford this season, and while the job Altman did off the court has come under some real scrutiny, he brought the basketball team some real success with 10 new players this year. Joseph Young is the sort of guard that can give any team trouble. Elgin Cook and Dwyane Benjamin are both real good athletes and willing, if undersized, bangers.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Oregon graduate Chuck Pahalniuk is writing a Fight Club sequel? No? Well he is. So prepare for a torrent of 25-to-34-year-olds to complain that their college experience has been ruined. And this will clearly be the worst thing Oregon has done this year. CLEARLY. THE WORST.
Personal Threat Level: There's likely going to be a second-round matchup with Wisconsin here, but the Badgers have the size and the experience to know how to handle Oregon's best shot. If Young gets hot Oregon could be trouble, but likely not.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Second-round matchup: No. 8 Oregon (5:50 p.m. CT Friday; Omaha.; TBS)
With the losses of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Travis Ford has slowed a team that enjoyed pushing the pace last season. The Cowboys are one of the teams that backed into the tournament, as their only win in their last seven games was some home revenge over TCU, who was 4-14 in the Big 12. That said, this is a team that forces turnovers, and Phil Forte and Le'Bryan Nash can score a whole bunch of points. They're not a big team, but if you don't take care of the ball, they can take you down.
Fun Fact: Another famous alumnus from Stillwater? Hoyt Axton, a.k.a. the "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" guy.
Personal Threat Level: They're a slower paced version of Oregon. Good offense, good pressure. No size. Yeah, if they can get hot from three they could shock the Badgers, but their guards tend not to attempt to get to the rim.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes
Second-round matchup: No. 7 VCU (3:40 p.m. CT Thursday; Portland; TNT)
D'Angelo Russell is a top NBA draft prospect. He can get to the rim, he can pass to his teammates and he's got a jumper. He's going to score. The Buckeyes can also defend and hit the offensive glass very well. If Sam Thompson can get to the rim, there's likely to be a highlight-reel play. Shannon Scott is also a steady senior at point guard. Thad Matta always tends to get a win or two in the tournament, too.
Fun Fact: Ohio State has made 11 Final Fours. It's won one title. Not clutch. Not at all.
Personal Threat Level: A star player can always put a scare into a more highly regarded team, but that's Arizona's concern. Not ours.
11. Ole Miss Rebels
Second-round matchup: No. 6 Xavier (3:10 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TBS)
A 62-point second half pushed Xavier passed BYU, and surprise, surprise, Stefan Moody led the way with 26 points. Moody has gained comparisons to Marshall Henderson with his inveterate gunning and ability to shoot teams into and potentially out of games, but he can also attack the rim and he will knock down every foul shot he gets. Jarvis Summers is a steady point guard, though as his 5-of-21 showing against BYU shows, his jumper has fallen off in his senior season.
Fun Fact: I don't remember who Ole Miss beat, but the last time the Rebels were in the First Four, they able to beat their higher-seeded opponent two days later.
Personal Threat Level: If we were Xavier, there would be reason to worry. But Ole Miss is a team that doesn't have the inside presence to counteract some of the low-post talents that its draw would bring before meeting Wisconsin.
12. Wofford Terriers
Second-round matchup: No. 5 Arkansas (8:50 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TNT)
Tourney thoughts: Sleepers, toughest regions
Who are the sleepers this NCAA tournament, and which region is the toughest draw
Wofford has been dominating the Southern Conference in recent years, as this is their fourth NCAA appearance in six seasons. Badger fans might remember them for presenting the only time Bo Ryan almost lost to a mid-major, back in 2010. As it stands, the team is stylistically similar. The Terriers are undersized (no starter over 6'6), but man up, they play slow and they've got momentum (and a win over a more physically gifted but inconsistent team in North Carolina State). Karl Cochran has a chance to be the mid-major star that becomes a local legend for smacking a No. 5 seed down. He leads the team in scoring, assists, steals and blocks.
Fun Fact: Cochran is also 6'1. Blocking a shot per game at 6'1 is pretty freaking cool.
Personal Threat Level: They're well coached, fundamentally sound and face an inconsistent Arkansas. They win, and they get an inconsistent North Carolina or a team that struggles with strong defenses in Harvard. But their draw includes Portis and a North Carolina team that can hit the glass with aplomb. They can knock off a sleeping-giant team, but they'd need help to get to Wisconsin.
13. Harvard Crimson
Second-round matchup: No. 4 North Carolina (6:20 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TNT)
Harvard returns to the West regional looking for its third straight season with a tournament win. The Crimson are a sexy pick for those who look for the tournament upset (#nerdsaresexy) with wins over a No. 3 seed and No. 5 seed during this run. Wesley Saunders, Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi have all been key parts of this Ivy League second-round run. They're obviously fundamentally sound, but they're like the Badgers of two seasons ago -- the shooting can disappear quickly.
Fun Fact: I have no fun facts about Harvard outside of the fact that Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur went there. He's really good at making great shows that if you haven't watched, you really should.
Personal Threat Level: North Carolina has been inconsistent enough to not make it completely foolish to think Harvard can go 3-for-3 in Round 1, but this defense is nowhere near dominant enough to get to the Sweet 16.
14. Georgia State Panthers
Second-round matchup: No. 3 Baylor (12:40 p.m. CT Thursday; Jacksonville; TBS)
If fully healthy, Georgia State has the guards to make the 3-14 matchup very interesting. That said, Ryan Harrow missed the conference tournament with a hamstring injury, and while the Panthers got through Georgia Southern's impression of a Dick Bennett style of basketball, there are several steps up to meet Baylor. Harrow has been arguably more valuable to the team this season than potential first-round draft pick R.J. Hunter, but if Harrow's healthy, it gives the Panthers three guards with tournament experience and two that have filled it up all year.
Fun Fact: You're probably going to hear something about this at some point, but Kevin Ware, the former Louisville guard who suffered a horrific injury the last time he was in the NCAA tournament, is making his return to the big dance with these Panthers.
Personal Threat Level: On the wrong side of the draw to cross the Badgers. Baylor matches up well even if Harrow's healthy. Georiga State isn't an untalented No. 14 seed, but you can safely root for the Panthers to cause chaos with no repercussions
15. Texas Southern Tigers
Second-round matchup: No. 2 Arizona (1:10 p.m. CT Thursday; Portland; TNT)
The life of a member school from a historically black college and university is a nomadic one: Texas Southern's schedule had exactly one home game until Jan. 17. The Tigers were 1-8 until a trip to Michigan State. After the shocking win over the Spartans in the Breslin Center, Georgia State went on to finish the year on a 21-4 run, losing only once by more than three points (a 66-62 loss to Arkansas Pine-Bluff). This is a veteran team; Madarious Gibbs is a steady force and Chris Thomas is a 6'5 TCU transfer who can also attack the boards.
Fun Fact: They play their home games at the creatively named Health and Physical Education Arena.
Personal Threat Level: They're 32 percent accurate with their threes and play one of the best interior defenses in the nation in Arizona. It's not gonna happen.
16. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Second-round matchup: No. 1 Wisconsin (8:20 p.m. CT Friday; Omaha; TBS)
The Chanticleers got here through balanced scoring, a willingness to hit the boards and tight defense. Elijah Wilson, Josh Cameron, Shivaughn Wiggins and Warren Gillis are a team of scorers who all average over double-digits. They also rank eighth in the country in rebounds despite no player being over 6'8 in the top rotation. They also were able to force a lot of bad shots against their opponents, managing a win over Auburn and a three-point loss in Oxford against Ole Miss.
Fun Fact: What the heck's a Chanticleer? It's a rooster from "The Nun's Tale." That's right, they went full on Chaucer with their mascot.
Personal Threat Level: They're undersized and they don't generate turnovers. Sure, they could keep it relatively close for a while if the Badgers come out and flop from three. But it's Sam Dekker, Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes versus a team where the tallest athletes are 6'8. The Badgers will get a run. Expect them to win comfortably.
If you got this far, the fact remains that Wisconsin and Arizona are both really good teams. After that, there's a lot of stuff that's subject to change. It could be one of those brackets where the Sweet 16 breaks down in seeding 1-to-4. It could also be a situation where it's 1-2-11-12. Either way? Let the ride begin.