Based on expectations when the season began, a matchup between the University of Wisconsin and North Carolina men’s basketball teams looked like something that could happen during the second weekend of the 2021 NCAA tournament.
Not quite. A pair of underachieving teams will meet as mid-level seeds in the first round, with the Badgers (17-12) and Tar Heels (18-10) scheduled to play Friday at 6:10 p.m. at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.
The winner likely will meet Baylor, the No. 2 overall seed in the field, on Sunday.
UW, which started the season ranked No. 7 in the nation, was handed the No. 9 seed in the South region and will enter the tournament with six losses in its past eight games.
“We thought we’d get a little bit of a (better) seed, but it is what it is,” UW senior point guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “You can’t really change that. You can’t affect that in any way. You’ve just got to go out there and compete against whoever you’re matched up with.”
North Carolina, the No. 8 seed, started the season ranked No. 16 but needed some key wins over the final month of the season to get off the bubble.
“We are ecstatic to be playing in the NCAA tournament,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “There were a couple of times during the season when we were wondering whether or not we would make the field, but our team kept getting a little bit better and better.”
UW coach Greg Gard called it a “terrific matchup,” though this one comes on a lesser stage than the first two NCAA tournament meetings between these two programs. The Tar Heels beat the Badgers in the Elite Eight in 2005 en route to their first of three national titles under Williams, and UW returned the favor a decade later by eliminating North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on its way to a national runner-up finish.
The Badgers went 4-10 against the NCAA tournament field, while North Carolina was an equally unimpressive 3-8.
The teams fared similarly against three common opponents: Both routed Louisville and lost to Marquette. North Carolina lost to Iowa in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, while the Hawkeyes beat the Badgers three times.
UW senior guard Brad Davison had yet to dig into North Carolina film but knew what to expect when he did: an athletic team that hasn’t changed its identify under Williams, who has gone 485-162 in 18 seasons in Chapel Hill.
“Obviously, it’s one of the best programs in college basketball over the last … forever,” Davison said. “Obviously, very well coached with coach Roy Williams. A lot of talent, really athletic, love to run up and down. Good defensively. I know they’re usually really good at offensive rebounding and going and getting their misses, love to play fast. That’s kind of the usual UNC protocol, how they operate.”
The one worrisome stat, as far as UW is concerned, is that North Carolina leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, collecting 41.3% of its misses.
UW has had trouble keeping long, athletic teams off the offensive glass, with the latest example coming during a 62-57 loss to Iowa in a Big Ten tournament semifinal on Friday night.
The Tar Heels have four players over 6-foot-10 in their rotation and two of them — freshman Day’Ron Sharpe and sophomore Armando Bacat — have combined for 187 offensive rebounds this season.
Bacot leads North Carolina with 12.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Caleb Love, who leads a heralded freshman class that has helped the Tar Heels bounce back from a 14-19 season, adds 10.5 points and a team-high 3.6 assists per game.
North Carolina does have some significant flaws: It shoots 31.7% from 3-point range and 66.7% from the free throw line, and it turns the ball over on 20.5% of its possessions, or roughly 14.8 per game.
UW, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to find the magic it had during an eight-game winning streak to end the 2019-20 regular season. The Badgers were eager to roll into the postseason after winning a share of the Big Ten title, but the postseason was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maybe that’s why the Badgers aren’t complaining about what seed they were given or what appears to be a difficult path on the opening weekend of NCAA tournament play. They’re eager to soak up an experience they didn’t get a year ago.
“It’s extremely special,” Davison said. “I know personally and for a lot of the guys in that locker room, when you’re growing up and you’re dreaming of playing on the college stage, you’re dreaming of playing in March and playing in March Madness and dreaming of that One Shining Moment video and everything that comes with playing in the NCAA tournament. Not having that opportunity last year has made this opportunity so much more special.”
The Badgers are 0-8 against teams who earned either No. 1 or 2 seeds in the tournament — three losses to Iowa, two each to Michigan and Illinois and one to Ohio State — but could get a chance to end that drought against Baylor in the second round.
First things first: UW has to beat North Carolina, which opened up as a 1½-point favorite over the Badgers.
“Where we’re at now, our backs are against the wall and we have nowhere to go,” UW senior center Micah Potter said after the loss to Iowa in Indianapolis. “If you lose, you’re done now. If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.”
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