COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — On the surface, Wisconsin’s loss at Maryland on Tuesday night is not all that big of a deal.
The Badgers still hold a two game lead over the rest of the Big Ten with just three games remaining. They still have a front line that includes the National Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky as well as a pair of future NBA players in Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes. They’re still going to be getting starting point guard Trae Jackson back at some point this season.
And here’s the most important part: that loss on Tuesday came but just six points on the road in one of the toughest environments in the conference against a top 15 team. It’s not like the Badgers lost to Rutgers …
And therein lies the biggest issue for the Badgers.
Entering yesterday, the Badgers were anything but a lock for a No. 1 seed despite the fact that their profile would be strong enough to get them one in a normal year.
Here’s the way that the bracket seems to be shaking out: Barring some kind of catastrophe down the stretch, Kentucky is going to enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Virginia, at 25-1 overall with a two-game lead over the rest of the pack in the ACC, looks destined to be the second No. 1 seed. Duke probably has the inside track at earning the third No. 1 seed — they have taken three losses this season, but two of them were against top 50 teams on the road and they not only have nine top 50 and 15 top 100 wins, but they have three top 20 road wins.
So that leaves one No. 1 seed and, realistically, three teams fighting for it.
Gonzaga looks like the front-runner at this point, seeing as they have just the one loss on the season; it came in overtime on the road against Arizona in a game where the Zags should have had a chance to win the game from the foul line in the final seconds. They may not end up with the fourth-best profile, but the committee will be hard-pressed to keep them off the top-seed line if they win out.
Now that Wisconsin lost, it looks like Villanova has moved ahead of them as well. The Wildcats are 26-2 on the season, the two losses being a blowout at Georgetown and an overtime loss at Seton Hall when Seton Hall was still good. They also have a 9-1 record against the top 50, with six of those nine coming against the top 25 and three of them coming on the road. The Badgers, in contrast, have just five top 50 wins, with none of them coming in true road games.
And that loss to Rutgers.
To be fair, that came without Frank Kaminsky in the lineup, but that gets factored into the equation more than the loss gets factored out.
In other words, missing out on the opportunity to land a road win against a team with a top ten RPI hurts.
Because the NCAA tournament selection committee prioritizes geography over everything else.
Kentucky is going to end up being a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, which will be played in Cleveland. Assuming that Virginia and Duke hold on as No. 1 seeds, that means that the Badgers would likely be destined to be the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. If Villanova gets a No. 1, Gonzaga would be slotted as the No. 2 out west. If Gonzaga gets the No. 1, Villanova will be headed to Syracuse and the East Region.
To be honest, I don’t think that losing at Maryland says all that much about how good of a basketball team Wisconsin is. Their biggest issue on the defensive end of the floor is a talented slasher at the small forward spot, a guy that can take advantage of being guarded by Sam Dekker or Nigel Hayes. Dez Wells did just that, but it wouldn’t have mattered if Wisconsin had shot better than 1-for-11 from three — the majority of which were open looks — in the first half. Wisconsin’s other issue is that their slow pace makes it difficult to dig out of a hole, and their cold start put them down 11 at the half.
In other words, this was a worst-case scenario for the Badgers, and they still managed to erase that deficit — on the road and against a top 15 team — and have the ball with a chance to take the lead with five minutes left in the game.
The Badgers are just fine.
But this loss undoubtedly was a blow to their Final Four and national title chances for no reason other than the fact that it made a matchup with the nation’s best team that much more likely to come earlier than they would have liked.