Wisconsin returns as a perennial contender seeded Badgers take on the 13th-seeded Grizzlies of Montana in round play from The Pit in Albuquerque.
Wisconsin earned a No. 4 seed for the third straight year for competing against arguably the toughest conference in the country. In fact, the steady Badgers have received a four-seed or higher in four of the last five seasons under head coach Bo Ryan. This year's ranking was well deserved as Wisconsin went 12-6 in league play -- a game behind the three-headed co-champions of the Big Ten regular season Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. Overall, the Badgers ended 24-9 with a 65-52 loss to eventual Big Ten tournament champs Michigan State in the semifinals of the conference tourney. Wisconsin certainly made its mark during the regular season despite losing each of its three matchups with the Spartans, sweeping three games from Indiana, including a quarterfinal win in the conference tourney, and splitting with Ohio State. UW also split its matchups against the two remaining Big Ten squads in the tournament, beating Purdue and losing to Michigan, while posting non- conference victories against UNLV and BYU. The Badgers also lost to a pair of NCAA heavyweights early on in Marquette and North Carolina, though the latter won by just three at home. Despite UW's longevity in making the field, it hasn't necessarily translated into the type of success it would like. Wisconsin has reached as far as the Sweet 16 five times and the Elite Eight twice in its run of 14 straight appearances, advancing to the Final Four in 2000 where it fell to Michigan State. The Badgers' only other run to the Final Four in 18 all-time appearances came in 1941 when they captured the program's lone national title. UW fell to Butler in the regional semifinals of last year's tournament.
Montana earned its place in the field by taking home both the Big Sky Conference Tournament crown and regular-season title -- taking out the conference's No. 2 team Weber State twice in three games to reach both feats. In fact, the Grizzlies enter the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning a school-record 14 straight and 20 of 21 games overall. Montana clinched its first outright Big Sky regular-season crown since 1991-92 with a 15-1 league record and ended 25-6 overall. The Grizzlies also played a pair of tournament teams during their non-conference schedule, losing to Colorado State in the season opener and later getting the best of Long Beach State. UM has made nine appearances all-time in the NCAAs with a 2-9 record. The last trip to the Big Dance saw the Grizzlies lose its opening round matchup with New Mexico in 2010 as a 14-seed. Montana's last taste of success in this event was in 2006 as a 12-seed, knocking off Nevada in the first round before coming up short against Boston College in the second round.
Wisconsin has won both of its previous matchups against the Grizzlies, most recently taking a 78-61 victory at the Big Island Invitational in Hawaii back in 1997.
Montana set itself apart from the rest of the Big Sky with a fiercely competitive defense. The Grizzlies hold the opposition to a mere 61.7 ppg and a 40.4 shooting percentage -- both marks standing head and shoulders above the rest of the league. The Grizzlies' offense isn't nearly as dominant, but in the context of things can be a potent weapon. Montana puts up 70.6 ppg and shoots a crisp 46.5 percent from the field with a trio of effective double- digit scorers. Junior Will Cherry is chief among them, ranking fourth in conference play at 16.0 ppg while chipping in 3.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and a league-best 2.6 steals. Cherry also serves as the team's top three-point threat with 50 on 37.3 percent shooting. Sophomore Kareem Jamar also plays a big role in the offense, averaging 13.8 ppg, 5.6 boards and a team-leading 3.7 assists. Jamar's 49 three-pointers stand second to Cherry and drop at a solid 44.5-percent accuracy. Junior Mathias Ward adds depth with an 11.1-point average and shoots 54.5 percent from the field, while Art Steward posts 9.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg and hits 52.5 percent of his field goals. Derek Selvig is Montana's leading rebounder at 6.1 per contest and chips in 9.2 ppg as well. The Grizzlies' overall rebounding effort lacks a bit of punch, though, with a slightly negative margin (33.5-33.0).
The Badgers' formula for success has hardly wavered over the years under Ryan's guidance, with defense at the forefront of every gameplan. It's no surprise then that UW's defense was not only the best in the Big Ten but tops in the nation among 338 teams, stifling the opposition's attack to the tune of 52.9 points per game. Wisconsin is among the top-10 teams in the country in field-goal percentage defense at 38.3 percent, but also second in the league behind Michigan State. Incredibly, the Big Ten features four of the top-18 teams in the country in scoring margin with the Badgers slotting in fourth among their league counterparts at plus-11.0. Wisconsin's offense is a bit of a question mark in ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring (63.9 ppg) and field-goal percentage (42.4 percent). Senior Jordan Taylor is the Badgers' top performer at 14.7 ppg while standing sixth in the league with 4.0 assists per game. Taylor often struggled to find his shot during the year, though, and enters the tournament shooting just 39.9 percent from the floor. His 54 three-pointers top the roster and land at a 35.5-percent accuracy. Junior Ryan Evans leads the team in rebounding with 6.8 per game and posts 10.9 ppg, while fellow junior Jared Berggren gives UW a trio of double-digit scoring options at 10.5 ppg and adds 5.0 boards. Helping to add depth down the line are Josh Gasser (7.7 ppg) and Ben Brust (7.2 ppg), who stands second to Taylor with 51 threes on 37.5 percent shooting. The Badgers had the fourth- most three-pointers in the Big Ten with 251 as Berggren (41) and Gasser (39) contribute to that end. UW does a decent job of handling the glass with a plus-2.2 rebounding margin (33.8-31.5) and sports the third-best free-throw percentage in the Big Ten at 74.1 percent.