Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he’s watched Coastal Carolina’s NCAA tournament opener last year against Virginia multiple times.
And he’s probably been asked about it many more.
Everybody here is well aware that the Chanticleers held a second-half lead on No. 1 seed Virginia a year ago before the Cavaliers seized a 70-59 win down the stretch, and it’s been a popular topic this week because the talk is always the same entering these matchups – is this the year a No. 16 seed like Coastal Carolina knocks off a No. 1 seed like Wisconsin?
That will be determined when the teams clash in their NCAA tournament opener Friday night at CenturyLink Center, and while it’s still never happened in the history of the tournament, Ryan reiterated that his Badgers (31-3) aren’t lacking any respect for the Chants (24-9).
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“Well, our players are pretty smart. Even if they hadn’t played that Virginia game, Coastal Carolina would have their attention, you know, with their games this year,” Ryan said. “I’ve seen the game – I’ve seen the game more than once, and they played the way Coach Ellis has had all his teams play. They played smart; their spacing is great on offense. Defensively, they’ll get after you.
“Our guys know we’re up against a very good opponent, just like the other years that we’ve played any NCAA tournament games. It won’t be because we don’t know about them or don’t respect them, that’s for sure.”
The official ledger entering this tournament was 120-0 in favor of No. 1s vs. No. 16s, but the Chants no doubt turned some heads last March while building a five-point halftime lead on Virginia before losing their grip on the game in the second half.
Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis says the 16 vs. 1 dynamic is not something he cares to get into with his players whatsoever, but they remember that game last March in Raleigh as well – and they aren’t going to pretend it’s not in their minds.
“Last year’s game against Virginia was a game we came in with confidence, just like this year. And the way the game went, it sort of disappointed us the way we didn’t finish the game,” senior guard Warren Gillis said as the teams met with the media in Omaha on Thursday. “But we know that this year we can compete with [those kind of] teams and if we do the things we need to in the second half we’ll be fine throughout the game.”
Senior guard Josh Cameron took it a step further.
“We know that we can win this game and we’re just coming out here trying to focus on the game plan,” he said. “And being a 16 seed, nobody really gives you a chance to beat a 1 seed, but we’re very confident in our team and we feel like we definitely can win this game.”
The Badgers swept the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships and are led by conference player of the year Frank Kaminsky, a 7-foot senior forward appropriately garnering national player of the year consideration.
Their only losses this season came on the road at Rutgers with Kaminsky out of the lineup, against No. 1 seed Duke and against No. 4 seed Maryland. And they’re riding a real wave of momentum with wins in 16 of their last 17 games.
“We all know how good they are. They’re a great team,” Ellis said. “It’s a tremendous test for our team, and we’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game, there is no question about that, because they really don’t have any weaknesses.”
Kaminsky leads Wisconsin in most every category, averaging 18.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
In addition to his 7-foot frame, the Chants also have to contain 6-foot-9 junior forward Sam Dekker (13.0 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Nigel Hayes (12.4 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) while playing without a starter taller than 6-foot-7 themselves.
“We haven’t played a player quite like Kaminsky, but we stick to what we do and that’s rebound, box out and things, fundamentals of the game,” Gillis said. “We can’t control the height difference or anything like that, but we can control the effort we give and the focus and all of that. We’re not really worried about the name of the player. There’s five guys in white jerseys they’ll be wearing and five guys in teal.”
Said sophomore guard Elijah Wilson: “We like challenges and we love to overcome challenges. And our coaching staff does a very good job of teaching us how to play each and every game we’re going into.”
The Chants are making their first ever back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances after winning the Big South tournament as a No. 3 seed earlier this month.
They have four starters back from their 2014 tournament team in Gillis (13.1 points per game), Cameron (12.9), Wilson (11.1) and junior forward Badou Diagne (9.6 points, 7.4 rebounds per contest).
Wilson says that veteran guard play is specifically what gives the Chants hope for the upset.
“We’ve been able to compete with just about any other guards in the country that we’ve played against during the season,” he said. “... We’ve got to stick to what we’ve been doing and play our hardest and hope good things will come.”
Whether this is the year a No. 16 seed makes history or not, Kaminsky said all he and the Badgers need to remember is what happened through the tournament’s first day Thursday with upsets abound.
“Coastal Carolina is a good team. We’ve been able to watch some film on them. We know what to expect,” Kaminsky said. “And if you look at what happened today, you gotta come out and play your best basketball of the year if you want to beat anyone. Can’t take anyone lightly. So we’re going to go in and give them our best 40 minutes of the season.”
And for all the talk of what the Chants did last year, Cameron said there is a very distinct difference this time.
No matter what anyone else thinks is possible Friday night against the vaunted Badgers, there is a belief in the locker room and a very clear goal.
“One thing last year, just with the program being there for the first time in 20-some-odd years, a lot of people we’re just happy for us to get there,” Cameron said. “And this year we actually want to make some noise in this tournament, we actually want to get a couple wins. We’re on a mission this year.”