The odds say that 15th-seeded American has about as much of a shot at beating second-seeded Wisconsin in their NCAA opener Thursday just 79 miles from the Badgers’ campus as Matthew McConaughey did of winning an Oscar. But since the often-lampooned actor did just that this month …
“We’ve been seen as the underdogs all year,” said sophomore guard Jesse Reed, who leads the 20-12 Eagles with 13.9 points per game. “Everybody thinks we’re [just] happy to be there, but we know we deserve to be there. We’re going into the game to compete, give them the best game we can and try to pull out a win.”
Senior center Tony Wroblicky, a key in AU’s turnaround from last year’s dreary 10-20 campaign to this season’s Patriot League championship, struck an equally optimistic note.
“The past couple of years, [three No.] 15 seeds have won a game, Florida Gulf Coast last year [over Georgetown] and Norfolk State [over Missouri] and Lehigh [over Duke],” said Wroblicky, who faced that Lehigh team twice that 2012 season. “That definitely gives us the confidence that … you can win a game against these big-time teams.”
And yet, look at the record.
The 12th-ranked Badgers (26-7) are 13-0 outside of the Big Ten. They defeated top-ranked Florida, third-ranked Virginia, seventh-ranked Michigan and No. 11 Michigan State while going 6-2 against foes in the top 25. Wisconsin’s only losses to non-ranked teams came against Big 10 opponents Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern. This is the 16th straight NCAA appearance for Wisconsin, its 13th under coach Bo Ryan.
The Eagles are dancing for just the third time in school history and the first time in five years. Their two biggest victories came over Patriot regular season champion Boston University. They lost to Colgate, George Mason, Lafayette and Loyola, all of which finished below .500.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Ryan and his program … [they’re] one of the most disciplined teams, year-in and year-out,” said AU first-year coach Mike Brennan before the Eagles were feted by a small group of supporters prior to heading to Wisconsin on Tuesday. “Hopefully we can at least make Wisconsin work for what they get. We’ve gotta stick with the things that have gotten us here. That’s the only chance we have for being in the game. You have to have a mistake-free game almost to even be in it at the end. We’re looking forward to competing and representing ourselves and the Patriot League the best we can.”
Brennan knows from experience that can be done. He was an assistant to predecessor Jeff Jones when similar AU teams hung in there as massive underdogs in the NCAAs, losing by 15 to Sweet 16 qualifier Tennessee in 2008 and to Final Four-bound Villanova by 13 in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Badgers advanced past the first weekend in just two of the past five years, losing in the second round to Ivy League champion Cornell in 2010. And then there’s this nugget. One of Wisconsin’s three home defeats this season came at the hands of Ohio State. AU only fell to the Buckeyes, then ranked eighth in the country, by 11 points in Columbus back when the Eagles were in the throes of a 3-7 start as they adjusted to Brennan’s motion offense and suffocating defensive concepts. AU is 17-5 since. Wisconsin is 16-7 since its 10-0 start.
While Ryan’s teams are famous for their stifling defense, this season, AU was eighth in the nation, allowing just 58.6 points per game –- including a season-low in the Patriot League title contest at BU –- while Wisconsin was 48th at 64.6.
“It was good to play in an environment like [Ohio State], a big arena with everyone [rooting for the home team],” said Brennan, an assistant at Georgetown the previous four years. “It was loud. Playing in that game has given the guys a little bit of a taste [of how it will be in Milwaukee]. We’ve been in environments like this before. We had to win the championship at BU on their court. We did a really good job defensively, man and zone. We made them take contested shots. To stop them [like that] was an accomplishment.”
Junior point guard Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin, has provided leadership and a relentlessly upbeat attitude for the Eagles, who were picked ninth out of 10 teams in the Patriot League’s preseason poll.
“Coach [said] that [the victory at BU] was one of our best defensive efforts and if we give that kind of effort every time, we could’ve won more games,” Gardner said. “If we defend and rebound, I think we have a chance [to upset Wisconsin]. The crowd matters, but it also matters what we do on the court.”
Like AU, which has four players averaging from 11.4 to 13.9 points, Wisconsin doesn’t have any stars. Seven-foot center Frank Kaminsky leads four Badgers who average from 10.4 to 13.6 points. Still, the 6-10 Wroblicky knows that extending his storybook senior season with a victory Thursday is hard to fathom.
“Since [I knew] I had the ability to play Division I basketball, I’ve wanted to make the tournament,” he said. “Making it finally my senior year has been very special. We’re going to have to play our best game to even be competitive. To win would be unbelievable.”
But then who would’ve believed a team that lost three times to Army and also fell to Hampton and Howard last year would even be in this position? Maybe only AU President Neil Kerwin, who joined athletic director Billy Walker in hiring Brennan less than 11 months ago after Jones departed for Old Dominion following 13 years on Ward Circle.
“Just like they did in the Patriot League tournament, I’m confident that not only will they give it their best effort, but they’re gonna show Wisconsin what AU basketball really looks like,” Kerwin said.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.