Southeast Regional play at the 2011 NCAA Tournament continues Thursday evening from the McKale Center in Tucson as the No. 4 seed Wisconsin Badgers take on a tough 13-seed in the Atlantic Sun champion Belmont Bruins.
Wisconsin is taking part in the NCAA Tournament for a remarkable 13th consecutive year but on a serious down note after the Badgers were bounced from the Big Ten tourney in an embarrassing one-and-done 36-33 loss to Penn State as the third seed. The harsh defeat doesn't embody the Badgers' full body of work, though they were also defeated rather easily by Ohio State (93-65) in the regular-season finale to halt a streak of eight wins in nine games. Wisconsin ended the year 13-5 in the Big Ten and a solid 23-8 overall with wins against tournament teams in the Buckeyes, Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue and Marquette. The Badgers also have early road losses to the likes of Notre Dame and UNLV on their schedule. Wisconsin has developed a pretty rich history in the tournament of late, garnering a top-six seed in seven of its 10 NCAA tournament appearances under head coach Bo Ryan, including seeds of No. 4 or higher in three of the last four seasons. UW took care of Wofford to open last year's tourney before falling to upstart Cornell in the next round. The Badgers take a 21-15 all-time tournament mark into Thursday's second round.
Belmont continued a rich tradition of its own in 2010-11 by clinching its seventh Atlantic Sun championship (three tournament, four regular season) since 2006. Only Kansas, Gonzaga and Memphis have won more crowns over that span. The Bruins are back in the tournament for the first time since 2008, the last of three straight appearances when the program nearly became a part of history in falling just short of a monumental upset of No. 2 Duke as a 15th seed. Belmont will again look to make its mark on the NCAAs after a sensational 30-win season that saw only losses to tournament teams Vanderbilt and Tennessee (twice) as well as Lipscomb. The Bruins take a 12-game win streak into the tourney searching for their first advancement in the bracket.
The Bruins and Badgers are meeting on the hardwood for the first time Thursday.
The Bruins own the nation's 11th-ranked scoring offense at 80.4 ppg but also a top-35 defense nationally, ranked 34th for limiting teams to 61.9 ppg. That balance has allowed for what could be a change in pattern for the Bruins in this year's tournament. Balance is also the name of the game on offense with a trio of players checking in at double-digit scoring led by Ian Clark's 12.4 ppg. Mick Hedgepeth (10.6 ppg) and Scott Saunders (10.0 ppg) add depth while Jordan Campbell (8.4 ppg) combines with Clark to form a potent three-point shooting duo. Campbell's 74 treys leads the club and dropped at a healthy 46.0 percent from the floor, while Clark sank 72 triples and at a 43.6-percent rate. They finished 2-3 in the Atlantic Sun in three-point field-goal percentage. Drew Hanlen helps direct the offense by dishing out a team-high 4.0 assists, ranking fifth in the league, while Belmont ended first in the Atlantic Sun by a far measure with a plus-5.24 turnover margin. The Bruins rank third in the nation in steals per game (9.7), hold a top-rated plus-3.9 in rebounding margin and first-place league standing in assists (16.4). Hedgepeth (6.0 rpg) and Saunders (5.4 rpg) help lead the rebounding effort.
The Badgers normally hang their hat on a strong defensive front, but also boast a pair of standout performers on offense in senior Jon Leuer and junior Jordan Taylor. The duo rank third and fifth, respectively, in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.6 and 18.1 points per game. Both are also to be reckoned with from three-point range with Taylor topping the roster with 65 treys on 43.3 percent shooting and Leuer checking in with 51 on a 37.8-percent accuracy. Keaton Nankivil adds another layer to that dynamic, averaging 10.0 ppg and totaling 55 threes on 46.2 percent shooting. Each plays a part in the rebounding effort as well, with Leuer's 7.3 boards pacing the squad and ranking fifth in the Big Ten. Taylor brings 4.7 assists per game to the table, also placing fifth in the league. Taylor and Leuer also sit 2-3 in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage, giving the Badgers top marks (82.4) in the category in the nation. UW is also among the country's best defensive teams, surrendering only 58.3 ppg to rank fifth nationally. It helps to offset a mediocre offense overall for the Badgers, who placed eighth in conference at 68.2 ppg. A 44.5 overall shooting percentage stood just seventh in the Big Ten, but that total raised to fourth (37.1) on three-point attempts. UW also does a decent job in the rebounding department, holding the league's fourth- best margin (plus-3.8), while committing the nation's least amount of turnovers at a measly 7.4 per game.
Belmont may just get its long-awaited tourney victory if the same Wisconsin team shows up from the Big Ten Tournament. That being said, the Badgers held a lofty national ranking for a good deal of the season, and for a reason. Leuer and Taylor are game-changers, enough to offset Belmont's team-first approach if one or both are on.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Wisconsin 67, Belmont 64