PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Notre Dame's offense is ready. Wisconsin's defense is set. This East Region's clash between sixth and seventh seeds Friday night will be a battle right from the get-go.
The sixth-seeded Fighting Irish and the seventh-seeded Badgers, both coming off of buzzer-beating victories in the Round of 32, will face each other at the Wells Fargo Center in a Sweet 16 Matchup centered around the battle between Notre Dame's scoring unit and the top-tier defense of Wisconsin.
Notre Dame Poised To Take On Tough Wisconsin Defense
"If you have to play against their set defense, it becomes kind of a long night," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey told VAVEL USA of the Badgers. "I think you have to try and get down on the floor on them a little bit."
"We know we'll have to be good," Gard said.
Wisconsin's defense sure has caused plenty of long nights this season, doing such in the first two games of this 2016 NCAA Tournament by holding Pittsburgh to 43 points in the first round and then keeping Xavier's high-octane offense to 63 points two days later.
Coach Greg Gard pointed out the same area of focus as Brey. "We'll have to be very good in transition. We're going to have to be very good in the gaps in terms of taking away dribble penetration," he remarked to VAVEL USA. "Last week we grew as much defensively as we had all year in the two games against Pittsburgh and Xavier."
Notre Dame will be a major challenge to keep up with, as they have a full group of five players averaging double-digits in scoring. Led by Demetrius Jackson and double-double machine Zach Auguste, the Fighting Irish have scored 70 and 76 points in their first two tournament games, respectively, and they won't let Wisconsin's reputation worry them.
"We have one of the most efficient offenses in the country," Auguste noted to VAVEL USA. "Just playing unselfish and playing our movement should be great."
With things most likely to end up tight down the stretch, both teams have shown their cold-bloodedness and are ready to compete and step up when called on. Bronson Koenig knocked down a fadeaway corner three as time expired to beat Xavier and Rex Pflueger tipped in a rebound at the last second to help Notre Dame get by Stephen F. Austin. It's clear these teams have trust instilled in every player and have gone through a lot together.
Gard's Badgers Have Battled Through A Lot
Wisconsin especially has endured hardship to get to this stage. Coach Gard had to take over for the legendary Bo Ryan in December after Ryan announced his retirement, and the team itself has had to carry on through all this and the transition to having Gard as full-time head coach after he signed a five-year deal with the program.
"It's been a whirlwind," said Gard. "There's been so much that's encompassed the past year, really going back to, you know, the Final Four last year and that whole run, into the spring with my dad and that whole journey with him with cancer. And then obviously everything that played out in December with Coach Ryan retiring."
And how ironic is it that his team is competing in Philly, so close to where Ryan is from, Chester?
On Notre Dame's side, they seem to have found internal leadership to drive them to and past these high-pressure March Madness moments. Coach Brey said he believes his "group has complete ownership of itself and what they're saying to each other and how they pick each other up."
Players like V.J. Beachem have really stepped up for the Fighting Irish, seeing the team's unmatchable depth. Beachem himself has surged into a bigger role in postseason play, scoring in double-digits for each of Notre Dame's last four games.
"Just been playing with a lot of confidence, just trying to knock down open shots and do whatever I can to help us win," said Beachem. Coach Brey added that he's seen Beachem really emerge as a leader on the court emotionally for his side. "He's telling guys, we're fine, stay calm, let's get a stop here, get a good possession."
It'll be role players like Beachem and the Badgers' Ethan Happ that could make the difference here. Nigel Hayes and Koenig have experience and firepower to lead Wisconsin, but they can't do it alone.
"Me and Nigel embrace our roles as leaders on this team and [are] just making sure everybody else is ready to play when the game comes," Koenig stated to VAVEL USA.
This game will be of two fierce teams, possibly one comparable to an unstoppable force and the other to an impenetrable wall. It'll come down to who's feeling it at gametime and who's more ready to play. Nobody's underestimating their opponent and it couldn't appear more even.