A frantic two days in the Southeast Region concludes Saturday evening as third-round play wraps up with the No. 4 seeded Wisconsin Badgers battling fifth-seeded Kansas State at the McKale Center for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.
Wisconsin used a strong second half to top 13th-seed Belmont, 72-58, in its second-round tilt, getting 22 points and seven rebounds from Jon Leuer. Jordan Taylor added 21 points, including five baskets from beyond the arc, and also dished out six assists for the Badgers, who rebounded from a dreadful 36-33 loss to Penn State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Wisconsin is taking part in the NCAA Tournament for a remarkable 13th consecutive year and 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. The Badgers take a 22-15 all-time tournament mark into the weekend. Leuer scored 17 of his points in the final 20 minutes for Wisconsin, which held a 33-22 rebounding advantage over the Bruins.
Kansas State was impressive in its tourney opener, though it had to fend off a pesky 12-seed Utah State club for a 73-68 victory. Jacob Pullen finished with 22 points and five assists as K-State won for the seventh time in its last eight games despite losing to Colorado in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. Curtis Kelly added 15 points and six boards, while both Shane Southwell and Rodney McGruder donated 10 points in the win. The Wildcats are making their third consecutive appearance in the NCAAs and 25th overall having advanced to last year's Elite Eight before falling to eventual runner-up Butler. Thursday's win improved the KSU's tournament mark to 32-28 all-time.
Wisconsin and Kansas State have met five times previously, with the Badgers holding a 3-2 edge in the series. The most recent meeting came in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, a 72-55 Wisconsin win.
KSU showed a lot of determination this season after a disappointing 1-4 start to Big 12 play that sent the 'Cats tumbling from the national rankings. The senior Pullen is at the head of a capable, albeit unspectacular offense, ranking second in the Big 12 in scoring at 19.6 points per game while adding a team-high 3.8 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 49 steals. Pullen is also just behind the Wildcats' second-leading scorer, Rodney McGruder (11.4 ppg), with 68 three-pointers. McGruder, who also serves as the club's top rebounder (6.0 rpg), has 69 triples and hits at a 41.3-percent clip from beyond. Pullen drains 36.6 percent of his attempts. Kelly adds 10.5 ppg, 5.3 boards and shoots 53.9 percent from the field. Jamar Samuels provides further depth with averages of 8.5 ppg and 5.3 rebounds. The Wildcats put up 73.1 points per game overall, but that total stands just seventh in a stacked Big 12 Conference. One reason for K-State's success coming down the stretch was an improved defense, which now sits sixth in the league (66.0 ppg) and lifts the 'Cats to the fifth-best scoring margin in the conference (plus-7.1). KSU excelled in the rebounding game, posting the league's second-best margin (plus-6.7) but also struggled considerably in two key areas. A 65.4 free-throw percentage ranks just 11th in the Big 12 while the Wildcats' 43.7 field-goal percentage is 10th.
The Badgers normally hang their hat on a strong defensive front, but also boast a pair of standout performers on offense in the senior Leuer and junior Taylor. The duo rank third and fifth, respectively, in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.7 and 18.2 points per game. Both are also to be reckoned with from three-point range with Taylor topping the roster with 70 on 44.0 percent shooting and Leuer checking in with 52 on a 37.7-percent accuracy. Keaton Nankivil adds another layer to that dynamic, averaging 9.9 ppg and totaling 56 threes on 46.3 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 (82.3) in the category in the nation. UW is also among the country's best defensive teams, surrendering only 58.3 ppg to rank third nationally. It helps to offset a mediocre offense overall for the Badgers, who place eighth in conference at 68.3 ppg. A 44.7 overall shooting percentage stands just seventh in the Big Ten, but that total raised to third (37.7) on three-point attempts. UW also does a decent job in the rebounding department, holding the league's fourth-best margin (plus-4.0), while committing the nation's least amount of turnovers at a measly 7.6 per game.
Wisconsin has been a hard team to figure out, showing glaring inconsistencies in its game during the latter stages of the season. Kansas State however, has been on a steady roll lately and seems to have captured enough momentum for another possible deep run in the tournament.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kansas State 68, Wisconsin 65