|Surging Oregon hopes to suffocate steady Wisconsin|
No. 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament are often plucky mid-major schools who tend to be popular upset picks.
This year's tournament features three of those -- Murray State, Liberty and New Mexico State.
And then there are the Oregon Ducks.
Oregon, which qualified via the automatic bid that goes to the Pac-12 tournament champion, is playing like a monster right now and is merely a one-point underdog in its matchup against fifth-seeded Wisconsin in a first-round South Region game Thursday in San Jose, Calif.
"They're coming in hot," Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.
The Ducks (23-12) have won eight consecutive games, allowing only one opponent in that stretch to score more than 61 points.
"We enjoy playing tough and playing defense and rebounding now," said Oregon senior forward Paul White. "That's big for us."
While Oregon had to reinvent itself after multiple key injuries, Wisconsin (23-10) has been a picture of stability, starting the same lineup in all but one game.
Speaking of stability, who has been better in college basketball over the past three seasons than Ethan Happ? The 6-foot-10 stat-stuffing senior is a three-time first-team All-Big Ten player who is averaging 17.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Happ has posted two triple-doubles this season and has started all 138 games in his Badgers' career.
He also leads Wisconsin with 37 steals.
The Badgers had made 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances before missing last season's event.
"I guess maybe we did take it for granted a little bit, hearing our name being called," Happ said on the Big Ten Network. "So, this was a little more special than the previous two I was a part of."
Happ will have to deal with Oregon's athleticism, shot-blocking and length. Coach Dana Altman fueled his team's turnaround with a starting lineup that features four players at least 6-9. Kenny Wooten is a 6-9 pogo stick who blocked four shots in the Pac-12 title game against Washington on Saturday after blocking four in the semifinal against Arizona State on Friday.
Wisconsin averages just 9.5 turnovers per game -- tied for fifth-best in the country -- but that skill will be tested by Oregon's mix of defenses and ability to press and trap. The Ducks, with their length, can cover the 3-point line, allowing teams to shoot just 29.4 percent from behind the arc.
The Badgers' D'Mitrik Trice (11.7 points per game, 40.0 percent on 3-pointers) and Brad Davison (10.7, 36.6) are going to need to supplement Happ's scoring.
Oregon, which had to play four games in four days in the conference tournament, is grateful for a Friday first-round date at a nearby site. The extra day definitely will help freshman wing Louis King (team-high 13.1 points per game), who could use the time to rest a sprained ankle suffered in the Pac-12 semifinals.
"Our guys are playing better," Altman said. "More confidence. A lot more energy focused in the right direction."
Point guard Payton Pritchard was the Most Valuable Player of the Pac-12 tournament, with 65 points, 22 assists and just four turnovers.
Oregon was the preseason Pac-12 favorite but took some time to find itself after losing the inside-outside skills of five-star freshman big man Bol Bol to a foot injury after nine games.
"I kind of can't remember what that mentality was back then," White said. "And I think that's a good sign, that I left that in the past. We've shed that skin, and we're a new kind of team. That's something we'll carry on to San Jose."
--Field Level Media