OMAHA, Neb. -- Having already equaled the program record with 31 wins, including conference regular-season and tournament titles, the Wisconsin Badgers now begin the drive toward their ultimate goal of returning to the Final Four and taking home a national title. That drive begins tonight in Omaha against No. 16 seed and Big South tournament champion Coastal Carolina here on Friday night.
The Chanticleers (24-9), who reached the NCAA tournament after an 81-70 win over conference rival Winthrop, are no stranger to matching up with a No. 1 seed like the Badgers, having taken on top-seeded Virginia in the first round last year. In that matchup, Coastal Carolina built as much as a 10-point lead late in the first half before ultimately losing 70-59.
"Last year's game against Virginia was a game that we came in with confidence," CCU senior guard Warren Gillis said. "It disappointed use the way we didn't finish the game, but we know that this year we can complete."
Coastal Carolina proved it could compete with power-conference foes during non-conference play this season by compiling a 9-3 record that included a victory over the SEC's Auburn and a close 71-68 defeat against Ole Miss.
"They're in the tournament for a reason," UW senior guard Josh Gasser said. "We have to come out ready to play and play our best ball to come out with the win."
Second round Q&A: Previewing Coastal Carolina
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Wisconsin played its best basketball for stretches during last weekend's Big Ten tournament in Chicago, but also had stretches of not-so-stellar play that resulted in the Badgers facing a deficit of at least seven points in all three tournament games.
"I think we can just keep improving on everything," senior forward Frank Kaminsky said. "We know if we want to make a run in this tournament, we're going to have to play our best basketball of the season."
One thing that will not change heading into the NCAA tournament, at least at this point, is the Wisconsin starting five. Senior guard Traevon Jackson, sidelined since injuring his foot on Jan. 11 in a loss at Rutgers, began participating in drills this week but will not be ready for Friday night's contest. While the team is not ruling Jackson out should the Badgers advance deep into the tournament, the timing for his return is at best uncertain and continues to get pushed further and further back.
"Psychologically, [Jackson's return is] really important," Gasser said. "It's always good to have an experienced, talented body out there to help us out, so we would love to have him."
For the meantime, Wisconsin seems to be in good hands with sophomore Bronson Koenig. Since taking the starting role on Jan. 15, Koenig has averaged 12.2 points and 2.6 assists per game, shooting nearly 43 percent from three-point range in the process. Koenig was, at least in the minds of several Badger players, the Big Ten tournament's most outstanding player, putting up 16.3 points per game while shooting nearly 53 percent from three-point range. His 18-point performance in the second half and overtime against Michigan State was crucial in sparking the run that saw Wisconsin come from 11 points down late in regulation to take the title game in overtime.
"He's had a heck of a year," CCU head coach Cliff Ellis said of Koenig. "I really think a lot of the success they have had this year they can attribute to him."
As virtually every college basketball fan knows, No. 1 seeds are 120-0 against No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Although Wisconsin would not seem to be the type of top seed prone to becoming the answer to a popular trivia question, Coastal Carolina has a team that could certainly make a run at being the first No. 16 seed to advance, a fact it made clear in last year's game against Virginia.
"If you don't come to play, that's your season and that's your career," Gasser said of the Badgers' urgency. "We're going to go out there and just play our game. If we take control of the things we can control, we should be OK."