For the first time in the program’s history, the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers can make consecutive trips to the Elite Eight, but must first take down the No. 4 North Carolina Tar Heels in Thursday night’s West Region semifinal matchup at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Badgers reached their third Final Four in history last year, and will make their seventh Sweet 16 appearance under head coach Bo Ryan, but never has the program been in such a position to make the regional finals in back-to-back years.
On the flip side, the storied Tar Heels (five national titles and 18 Final Four trips) will get their first taste of the Sweet 16 since 2012, after failing to make it out of the tournament’s first weekend the last two years.
The Badgers enter the matchup with one of the more imposing frontlines in the country. Senior seven-footer Frank Kaminsky is a leading candidate for Player of the Year honors and has dominated the interior for 18.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game on 55.3 percent shooting, with forward Sam Dekker racking up 13 points and 5.4 boards, and sophomore Nigel Hayes putting up 12.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
The Badgers (33-3) brushed aside No. 16 Coastal Carolina 86-72 in their tournament opener, with Kaminsky pouring in 27 points and tearing down 12 rebounds, and didn’t even play up to their potential and still dropped No. 8 Oregon 72-65 with a second half surge and Dekker scoring 17 points.
It’s that dominate trio of bigs that the Tar Heels (26-11) will try to thwart, but they can take some solace in head coach Roy Williams recent history in the Sweet 16. Since he took over the program in 2003, Williams has gone 6-0 in the crucial round.
Coming off solid victories over Harvard and Arkansas in the first two rounds, North Carolina looks to be the second team to bump off a No. 1 this year, trying to one up No. 8 NC State’s upset over Villanova last weekend.
The Tar Heels record doesn’t come off nearly as lofty as Wisconsin’s, but Williams pointed to the level of competition his squad has faced this year.
“I feel really good about what these kids have done this year in a really difficult league,” Williams said to reporters. “Somebody said the only team we lost to that wasn't playing was Pitt. Everybody else was still playing. And we played 19 games against teams in the tournament. We played 10 games against the top four seeds.”
Much of North Carolina’s success, just like the Badgers, came from a solid frontline that ranked second in the nation in rebounding, with guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson spearheading the offense.
Paige put up 22 points, six rebounds and five steals against the Razorbacks, largely picking up some of the scoring slack when forward and low-post threat Kennedy Meeks went down with a sprained left knee early in the second half. Johnson struggled a bit from the field, registering seven points, but snagged 13 boards, and freshman guard-forward Justin Jackson nearly equaled his career-high with 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting.
But Meeks, one of the Tar Heels key contributors on the glass, is reportedly a game-time decision against Wisconsin. Williams said earlier this week that the sophomore forward, who’s second on the team with 7.4 rebounds and scores 11.4 points per game, may not play.
Jackson, along with sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks, could be tabbed to make up for Meeks’ absence, especially scoring down low and forcing Wisconsin’s big men into foul trouble.
Start Time: 7:47 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at the tournament’s official site here.
Betting Odds: Wisconsin -6
Over/Under: 145 points
Prediction: Wisconsin over North Carolina, 70-60