It didn’t necessarily work out the way anybody expected, but the top two teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis made it to the final. The Virginia Cavaliers topped Dayton in a close fought matchup while the Wisconsin Badgers dominated Oklahoma. This sets up a matchup between two very similar teams and two very similar programs.
Both Virginia and Wisconsin are Pack Line teams under head coaches from the Dick Bennett tree. These are two of the slowest teams in the nation, and two of the best defensive teams in the nation. They are also two of the best teams in the nation, with the Hoos ranking 4th in KenPom’s rankings and Wisconsin ranking 11th. The polls do not really tell the same story, as Virginia ranks 4th again but Wisconsin is 25th in the media poll and 26th (tops among unranked teams) in the coaches poll. The Badgers haven’t really been tested yet, with a 9-point win over Xavier as their only close game. Virginia hadn’t been tested prior to Dayton, who simply played a very strong game and kept Virginia from getting too far ahead.
Wisconsin, of course, is led by 6’10” 237 lb senior Ethan Happ, a pre-season first-team All American. He led the Badgers last year in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Pretty impressive. In the season opener against Coppin State, he had a triple double with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. He’s not a great athlete, nor is he much of a shooter, but he’s very good on the interior, both scoring and rebounding, and he’s a great passer with outstanding vision. Virginia will counteract him with the duo of Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite. It will be interesting to see if head coach Tony Bennett brings Salt back to the starting lineup because of this matchup. Jay Huff may get some minutes as well, but he’s simply too weak to hang inside with Happ. But Huff could also pull Happ away from the basket on the other end, which would open up the inside for DeAndre Hunter and Braxton Key to get going inside.
This is the kind of thing that Happ will do on the inside:
Happ actually isn’t the biggest guy in Wisconsin’s starting lineup. That honor goes to Nate Reuvers, a 6’11” sophomore who isn’t the nearly the force that Happ is, but he does complement Happ nicely. He can shoot, having made 6/10 so far this year (after only 25% last year) and is a very good shot blocker. We may see Tony begin the game with a more traditional lineup with 2 big men, just to help counter Wisconsin’s twin towers. Salt would be on Happ while Diakite would be on Reuvers.
It is tough to judge because of all the blowouts, but Wisconsin coach Greg Gard seems to favor a lineup similar to Tony’s small-ball lineup. Happ lines up with 4 perimeter players around him. Reuvers is averaging under 20 minutes per game.
The Badgers point guard is D’Matrik Trice, a career 42% three point shooter, who has made a ridiculous 61% of his treys so far this year. That includes 7-of-8 from downtown yesterday against Oklahoma. It’s safe to say that if Trice makes 7-of-8 again, the Badgers likely come out on top. That isn’t a typical performance, and at just 6’0” 187, he’s going to struggle to get his shot off against the bigger Ty Jerome.
The top two wings, Brad Davison and Brevin Pritzl, are both shooters who don’t do a whole lot else. One of those guys is going to be tasked with guarding Kyle Guy, and neither of those guys are really great matchup defenders, so the Hoos are going to need a big game from their All-ACC guard.
Speaking of All-ACC, DeAndre Hunter is going to have himself a very interesting matchup. Senior Khalil Iverson is one of the best defensive players in the Big-10. At 6’5” 217, he’s a tremendous athlete and a beast on the glass. His offensive game isn’t nearly as advanced as his defensive game, as he’s averaged just around 5 points per game for his career. He gets a lot of his points off the offensive glass or in the limited transition opportunities the Badgers will take.
The other player to watch is redshirt freshman Kobe King. He can shoot the ball, get to the rack and can either finish or dish. He was Wisconsin’s Mr Basketball in 2016, but missed most of last year with a shoulder injury and received a medical hardship for the season. King seems to still be working out the kinks following the missed time, because he’s seen limited minutes in the closer game Wisconsin has played. But he saw 25 minutes yesterday and played very well. He could be an x-factor in this game.
King’s uncle is Jimmy King, a member of the famed Fab Five from Michigan. His father Chris played at Wake Forest before a long professional career.
In two games in Atlantis, Virginia has shot 15-of-43 (34%) from three point land. That’s far below their season average of 42% and far below their last year’s 38.5%. If Virginia continues to struggle from the outside, they’re probably going to lose this game. Wisconsin has better interior players and has enough perimeter talent to hold their own out there. If Virginia gets the shooting back up to the 40% range, Wisconsin probably can’t score enough to keep up.
The last two times these two teams played, the scores were remarkably similar. The Badgers won 48-38 at JPJ in 2014, the year Wisconsin went to the Final Four that year. Last year, Virginia won 49-37 at JPJ as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Either of these teams could absolutely end up in Minneapolis for the Final Four this year, which makes this a very interesting early season test.