After demolishing Bradley University in the opening round of the NIT, Wisconsin basketball is set to face what appears to be a much stiffer opponent on Sunday when they play host to Liberty University.
Liberty’s path to the Kohl Center
At first glance, Liberty appears to be a much stiffer opponent than Bradley. Located in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty won the regular season title in the Atlantic Sun conference. When they lost their conference championship to Kennesaw State, Liberty experienced its own March Madness frustration after getting snubbed on Selection Sunday despite having a record of 26-8.
They took out some of that frustration when they hosted Villanova in the opening round of the NIT, winning 62-57.
Once again, Wisconsin faces a team that had a fantastic regular season record but missed out on the Big Dance because they didn’t win their conference’s automatic bid. Looking at their schedule, it’s easy to see why.
Because much like Bradley, Liberty feasted on inferior opponents during the regular season. They played Alabama and got destroyed 95-59. No shame there, Alabama’s got a great team.
Then they lost to Southern Mississippi 76-72. As this was a step up in competition for Liberty, this is that surprising either.
Liberty also shares two common opponents with Wisconsin basketball. They played Northwestern, losing 66-52. In their very next game, Liberty defeated the Bradley Braves 55-44.
Liberty’s most impressive win of the season would be their most recent one against Villanova. However, even this win is diminished by the fact that Villanova had suspended their 3rd and 4th leading scorers for the game.
Suddenly, their 5-point home victory over a depleted Big East foe doesn’t seem nearly as impressive as it once appeared.
This is not to say that Liberty doesn’t have talent. Their senior guard, AP All-American Honorable Darius McGhee, is an incredibly talented player. The epitome of the term “high-volume shooter”, McGhee shoots 38.8 % of Liberty’s shots (per Kenpom.com), which is the second-highest total in the country. McGhee has shot the most 3-point shots in the NCAA this year with 396 attempts and is second in both 3-pointers made (158) and 3-pointers made per game (4.51).
McGhee can be a very dangerous player. He actually reminds me of Penn State’s own All-American guard, Jalen Picket. They are both the primary catalyst in their respective team’s offensive engines. McGhee actually is a slightly better shooter from outside, shooting 39% from behind the arc.
McGhee is 4th in the country in scoring at 22.6 points per game. In a regular season matchup against Kennesaw State, he dropped 43 points by going 8-14 from long range.
In many ways, McGhee is the embodiment of Liberty. They both protect the rock (McGhee averages 1.9 turnovers per game, Liberty is 21st in the country with 10.5), and shoot the ball well from distance (Liberty is 28th in the nation in 3-point percentage at 37.6%).
And they’re both small.
Darius McGhee, on his tiptoes, barely cracks the 5’9″. On Liberty’s entire roster, they have four players who play significant minutes at are above 6’7″. The tallest player is only 6’9″. The way that Liberty compensates for this incredible lack of height is with their long-range shooting.
Wisconsin basketball’s gameplan
The obvious way that Wisconsin can beat Liberty is to, not surprisingly, is to shut down McGhee. The two times that McGhee did not reach double-digits in scoring each resulted in a Liberty loss. Wisconsin’s length on their perimeter defense could disrupt McGhee enough to accomplish this difficult feat.
However, even if McGhee goes off, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a Liberty victory. Remember the game mentioned where McGhee hung 43 on Kennesaw State? Liberty lost 88-81.
Because of Wisconsin’s tremendous height advantage, they need to work the ball inside to Wahl and Crowl. While I’m not predicting another Kaminsky-esque performance by Big Steve, I do see him having a double-double.
But this feels, to me, like a game where Tyler Wahl goes off. His season high in scoring is 23 against Kansas. Since his return from the ankle injury, Wahl eclipsed 20 points just once, in the season-ending finale against Minnesota.
I think he flirts with that scoring total tomorrow.
Vegas, baby, Vegas…or the DraftKings Sportsbook
There has been some interesting movement of both the spreads and totals since they were initially opened. Wisconsin opened as a two-point favorite. In the last 24 hours, however, they have moved to a 3.5-point favorite. This would indicate that either a great percentage of the bets are coming in on the Wisconsin side. However, since a large number of bettors don’t bet on NIT games on a Sunday morning, the “sharps”, or professional bettors have taken the Wisconsin basketball side.
The total of the game opened at 128, moved down to 127.5 today, and then recently jumped up to 128.5. This kind of movement is generally the sportsbooks’ response to specific bettors or groups who can cause changes in the odds by their wagers.
Wisconsin basketball’s victory against Bradley was a complete victory, in that the Badgers established control early on and kept the Braves at arms-length for most of the game before finally pouring on the gas (and Steven Crowl’s five 3-pointers) and pulling away.
It looked like the team wanted to play, instead of coming out flat and ferociously mounting a comeback. I had a reader comment that Wisconsin doesn’t do “decisive” and I agreed. I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong.
While I’m not calling for another 19-point blowout, I think UW gets another solid victory here. Liberty does shoot the three very well, which will always allow them a chance to overcome almost any deficit.
But I think that UW’s size, as well as their own ability to snipe from distance, gives the Badgers the substantial edge. Liberty may even jump off to a hot start and grab an early lead. However, Wisconsin’s depth (a topic not often used in relation to Wisconsin basketball this year) should allow them to withstand any body blows administered before Wahl and Big Steve deliver their own knockout.
Tip-off for the Liberty-Wisconsin game is set for 11 a.m. (CST) on Sunday morning. The game will be televised on ESPN2. I’m calling for the Badgers to win comfortably and we get to experience the chaos that is this year’s NIT scheduling.