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Sizing up Wisconsin basketball as March approaches

Which Badgers team will we see come tournament time?

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2016-17 regular season winds down, the No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers are seeing their NCAA tournament fate taking shape.

Two weekends ago, when the NCAA selection committee released its preliminary top 16 seeds, the then-No. 7 Badgers were nowhere to be found despite their top-10 ranking, first-place stature in the Big Ten and an eight-game win streak.

The following day Wisconsin lost at home to Northwestern, marking only the second time in the Kohl Center’s existence that the Badgers suffered a loss at home to the Wildcats. Following the loss Wisconsin dropped to No. 11 and then lost its second straight game to Michigan, with Bronson Koenig sitting out due to a calf injury.

Koenig returned and Wisconsin rebounded this past Sunday in a big way, defeating No. 23 Maryland. The Badgers finished with a field-goal percentage of 41.4 percent, ending a streak of four games in which they shot below 40 percent.

The Badgers (22-5, 11-3 Big Ten) have four games remaining before the start of postseason play and with their absence from the preliminary top 16, most figure they are likely to end up as a No. 5 seed, drawing a contentious 5-12 battle.

Two No. 12 seeds were victorious in 2016: Yale defeated Baylor 79-75 and Little Rock defeated Purdue 85-83. Both Maryland and Indiana were victorious as No. 5 seeds.

Whether Wisconsin ends up as a No. 5 seed or happens to move up, the Badgers are a tough out when it comes to the NCAA tournament. As Badgers fans will remember, UW made it to the Sweet 16 this past season following a loss in the title game and a loss in the Final Four the two previous seasons.

What makes Wisconsin such a good tournament team is its defensive prowess and, at times, methodical offensive pace. When the Badgers slow down the pace of the game, they ensure they take the time to find the best offensive shot and limit opponents’ chances. Doing so has allowed them to currently lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 60.5 points per game.

While this has proven successful in the past, it can also have drawbacks, such as when the Badgers aren't able to hit their shots and find themselves in a similar situation as they did against Northwestern and against Michigan.

Apart from Wisconsin’s offensive dry spells, the team has one major weakness: the Badgers rank 12th in the Big Ten in shooting 66.5 percent from the free-throw line. The most troubling part of the free-throw woes is that their two most-frequent tenants at the line—Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ—combine to shoot 57.6 percent. Of the two, Happ is lowest at 51.6 percent while Hayes checks in at 62.3 percent, compared to his 73.6 percent average from a season ago.

If Wisconsin is unable to improve its shooting from the line, it could prove detrimental to a tournament run as teams could adopt a “Hack-a-Happ” philosophy, forcing the big man to beat them from the line. It could also prompt coach Greg Gard to keep Happ on the bench in pivotal moments.

Another issue the Badgers have faced this season has been turnovers. Wisconsin currently ranks 27th in the NCAA with 11.3 turnovers per game. Last season, the Badgers finished 32nd after posting the NCAA’s best mark in both 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Conversely, Wisconsin has a number of players with a wealth of experience when it comes to playing in March. Koenig, Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter have all had varying roles on each of Wisconsin’s last three tournament teams. The four, along with Happ, have been the starting five for Wisconsin in all but three games dating back to the start of the 2015-16 season.

Happ, Hayes and Koenig make up a veritable Big Three for Wisconsin, each averaging north of 10 points per game. Among younger players, sophomore Khalil Iverson has scored in double-digits in five games this season and has logged 15.4 minutes per game.

Freshman D’Mitrik Trice, who has started the last two games in Koenig’s place, has been lineup constant and currently leads the team in three-point shooting at 42.4 percent. He has also shown poise under pressure while running the point.

Another Badger who has come on strong recently is Brevin Pritzl, a redshirt freshman who sat out last season due to foot injuries. Pritzl had a breakout performance in Wisconsin’s win over Maryland, scoring seven points and hauling in seven rebounds. Five of those boards were offensive, matching Maryland’s output as a team.

Gard will definitely be evaluating the likes of Pritzl and the rest of the bench to decide which younger Badgers see time as Wisconsin gets ready to make a postseason run.

Wisconsin’s next chance to pad its resume will be on Thursday when the Badgers visit Ohio State at 8 p.m. on ESPN.