The Wisconsin Badgers and Arizona Wildcats meet Saturday in Anaheim, CA in the West Regional finals for the right to move on to Dallas for the 2014 NCAA Final Four. As it happens, the West Region has gone according to the rankings, with Arizona the top seed Wisconsin number-two.
It has been a similar journey to the Elite 8 for both of these teams, having two relatively easy wins and being pushed to the limit in one other. Arizona dispensed of Weber State 68-59 in a game that was not as close as it appears, as Weber State trimmed a 21-point deficit down to 9 in the closing minutes. The Wildcats had a surprisingly easy time with Gonzaga in an 84-61 third round victory, before gutting out a 6-point win Thursday night over San Diego State 70-64.
Wisconsin took advantage of a near-home court advantage as they played their first two games in Milwaukee, just 80 miles from their campus in Madison. They simply outclassed American University 75-35, but then needed a second-half comeback to get by Oregon 85-77 to move on to the regional semi-finals. On Thursday night it seemed like they were still playing on their home floor, jumping out to a 14-point lead in the first half and cruising to 69-52 win over a hot Baylor team.
Arizona has the better history in the NCAA tournament, appearing in the post-season pageantry 30 times, with four Final Four berths and a 48-29 record. The Wildcats won the national championship in 1997. Wisconsin has 2 Final Four appearances in 19 tries in the tournament, compiling a 25-18 record. They also have one championship—in 1941.
There does not seem to be an Elite 8 matchup this year that will be played by two teams more alike than Wisconsin and Arizona. They are both hard-nosed, gutty teams that will do whatever it takes to win the game. They can both execute their half-court offenses to perfection, but can push the ball down the court when the opportunity arises. Both teams can score inside when they need to, but have the shooters to make the opposing defense respect their perimeters. Their defensive statistics speak for themselves, with Wisconsin thirty-ninth in the nation in points allowed and the Wildcats fifth. Strength of schedule is similar, with each team coming from a conference that placed 6 teams in the NCAA tournament.
It is fruitless to try and pick the “hot” team in this situation, as any team reaching the Elite 8 would certainly be on a roll. Arizona is 33-4 on the season, and all four of their losses came in the last 2 months. Similarly, the Badgers have three losses in February and March.
A clue to identifying the team with the advantage in this NCAA Elite 8 contest between Wisconsin and Arizona happened in the Wildcats’ game Thursday night against San Diego State. With Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson being held without a point until late in the second half, Arizona found enough scoring from the rest of their squad to stay close to, and then pull away from, a talented Aztec squad in the closing minutes. Johnson returns to form in the West Regional finals and the Wildcats back up their number-one seed with a surprisingly easy 85-71 win.
Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky