Ten years ago the North Carolina Tar Heels dropped the Wisconsin Badgers 88-82 in the NCAA Tournament regional finals, on their way to the first national championship under head coach Roy Williams. The outcome of that game was expected, given the Tar Heels now 18 total trips to the Final Four compared to the Badgers three all-time. But since then, time has significantly altered the fortunes of both programs.
North Carolina went on to win another title under Williams in 2009, while the Badgers and head coach Bo Ryan didn’t get back to the regional final until last year, when they eventually reached the third Final Four in school history before falling to Kentucky.
However, the Tar Heels haven’t enjoyed much recent success like the Badgers in the tournament. In the last two years, North Carolina’s been eliminated before the end of the tournament’s first weekend, snapping a five-year run of, at minimum, trips to the regional finals.
Yet, ahead of just the second tournament meeting between the two schools, in Thursday night’s West Region semifinal matchup at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Badgers aren’t banking on recent success against the dangerous Tar Heels.
"Obviously they are a really good team," Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "so if we don't play well we probably won't end up on the winning side."
The Badgers (33-3) were nationally ranked as high as No. 2 during the regular season, thanks to stellar campaigns from senior 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, junior forward Sam Dekker and sophomore forward Nigel Hayes. But Wisconsin didn’t play like a top seed in its third round 72-65 victory over Oregon.
The trio of bigs put up a combined 47 points, but Wisconsin struggled from the floor, shooting 43.1 percent overall, down from 48 percent in the regular season, and were outrebounded 34-32.
Figuring out what to do when Kaminsky has the ball seemed to be the problem for the Badgers in the first half, Gard told the Journal-Sentinel, but that doesn’t mean they will shy away from their top player against North Carolina.
"He is the best player in college basketball," sophomore point guard Bronson Koenig said, "so you can never get it to him enough."
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, it seems they are likely to miss talented big man Kennedy Meeks against Wisconsin’s stacked frontline.
Meeks, a sophomore forward who’s averaged 11.6 points on 56.6 percent shooting and 7.4 rebounds per game this season, suffered a sprained left knee in the third round 87-78 victory over Arkansas.
"It's not good," Williams said on his weekly radio show. "They're not completely ruling him out, and they're not saying that he can play. Let me say it that way — I don't think we'll have him, but we'll just have to wait and see.
With Meeks likely to sit out, North Carolina guard and leading scorer Marcus Paige, as well as junior forward Brice Johnson will once again be tabbed to lead the offense. Paige struggled a bit from the field against the Razorbacks, going 5-for-14, but managed a team-high 22 points with relentless attacks to the basket. Paige would go 9-for-9 from the free throw line, and on the season he’s knocking down 86 percent of his attempts.
Johnson saw his five-game streak of double-digit scoring snapped at the start of the tournament, recording seven points against Harvard and another seven versus Arkansas. But he’s still found ways to be effective, by pulling down 13 boards and racking up two steals and two blocks on the defensive end against the Razorbacks.
Tipoff: Thursday, 7:47 p.m. ET
Where: Staples Center in Los Angeles
Betting Odds: Wisconsin -6
Over/Under: 144 points
Prediction: Wisconsin over North Carolina, 70-60