Wisconsin has been as good as any team not named Kentucky in the 2014-2015 college basketball season, and they are one of the favorites in the NCAA Tournament. As the No.1 seed in the West region, the Badgers are hoping their regular-season success translates into six wins during March Madness.
The Badgers haven’t won the title since 1941, though they came close a year ago, making it all the way to the Final Four before being knocked off by Kentucky. Wisconsin hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament in 17 years, but the Badgers haven’t reached the title game during that impressive stretch.
What are Wisconsin’s chances of winning the 2015 college basketball national championship? Is this finally Bo Ryan's year?
According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, the Badgers have as good of a chance as anyone to prevent Kentucky from going undefeated and winning it all. Their 8/1 championship odds are the second-best in the tournament.
It’s not an easy road to the Final Four for Wisconsin, but they are the most likely team to win their region. The Badgers have taken care of business against weaker competition all season long, and that should continue in the first weekend of the tournament. Two of their three losses were difficult games, falling to Duke on Dec. 3 and losing in late February at Maryland, the No.4 seed in the Midwest region. Wisconsin’s only other defeat came in a visit to Rutgers when they were without Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky.
An opening-round victory over No.16 Coastal Carolina is all but guaranteed, and Wisconsin should be able to get by either No.9 Oklahoma State or No.8 Oregon in the Round of 32. No.4 North Carolina or No.5 Arkansas may await in the Sweet Sixteen, but the Badgers are expected to be comfortable favorites against either opponent. Wisconsin has been dominant against tournament teams, going 12-2 in such games.
A possible Elite Eight matchup with No.2 Arizona should be the most daunting test, and it’s possible that the Badgers wouldn't be favored. But Wisconsin was in the exact same position last year, and they advanced to the Final Four. In the 2014 West Regional Final, Kaminsky’s 28 points and 11 rebounds led Wisconsin to a 64-63 overtime victory over Arizona.
Kaminsky’s presence is a major reason why the team can win six consecutive games. His 18.2 points and 8.0 rebounds have made him a nominee for the Wooden Award, and he gives the Badgers the best player on the court in almost every game.
Kentucky, the overwhelming favorites in the tournament, will be the biggest obstacle for Wisconsin if both teams reach the Final Four. No team has been able to beat John Calipari’s team in 34 tries, and the Badgers would have a difficult time doing so. But if any team can ruin Kentucky's bid at a perfect season, it might be Wisconsin, considering they are projected to the be smallest underdog of any possible Kentucky opponent.
Ryan’s squad is not an offensive juggernaut, and an upset in the early rounds is highly possible if they attempt questionable shots. In their three losses, Wisconsin averaged 61.7 points and converted 31.3 percent of their three point attempts. The Badgers are scoring 71.9 points per game on 35.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc this season. They are also capable of being dominated on the boards, as Michigan State proved when the Spartans out-rebounded Wisconsin, 32-23, at the United Center in Chicago on March 15.
But Wisconsin isn’t likely to get bounced early, because they won't beat themselves. The Badgers take care of the ball better than any team in the nation, committing just 7.4 turnovers per game. They rank ninth in scoring defense, allowing 56.1 points per game.
Wisconsin isn’t just a well-coached team that plays the game the right way. They also have plenty of talent to win the national championship. The Badgers start a few future NBA players on the roster, as Kaminsky and Sam Dekker could be selected in the first round of June’s draft. Nigel Hayes has been very productive, as well, averaging 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, making 40.3 percent of his three-point attempts. Senior guard Josh Gasser is capable of knocking down perimeter shots to keep opposing defenses honest.
It’s been 15 years since a Big Ten school won the national title, and Wisconsin gives the conference a legitimate chance to end the streak.
Conclusion: Kentucky is probably too stacked. Expect Wisconsin to go as deep as the Final Four, and give Kentucky a serious scare before bowing out.