BUFFALO, N.Y. — Hanging on the wall just outside Villanova’s locker room is a sign pointing the players toward the floor.
It should read: Danger ahead.
Of all the teams the top-seeded Wildcats may face on their journey to a possible second straight NCAA championship, the eighth-seeded Badgers just might pose the biggest threat. Wisconsin has weapons, for sure, but more importantly, the Badgers have tournament chops as the only school in the country to make the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons and a national-best 12 tourney wins in the last four years.
And the Badgers can slay giants in March.
In 2014, Wisconsin beat No. 1 seed Arizona in the national quarterfinals and the following year, the Badgers stunned No. 1 - and previously unbeaten - Kentucky in the Final Four.
As they prepared to meet a team as physical as any they’ve played all season, the Wildcats are wary of Wisconsin.
“Very dangerous,” Villanova guard Josh Hart said in describing the big boys from the Big Ten. “You see how well-balanced they are.”
Inside, outside, the Badgers can do damage both places. They can play fast or slow, with finesse or brute strength. On Thursday night, they leaned on their experience from previous NCAA visits down the stretch to defeat Virginia Tech 84-74.
Senior Bronson Koenig made a school record eight 3-pointers and scored 28 points and Nigel Hayes recorded his third straight double-double as the Badgers (26-9) set up a meeting with the Wildcats (32-3).
Villanova’s opening night performance as a No. 1 overall seed did nothing to inspire confidence that this group - Nova’s seniors are 129-16 in the past four years - is capable of becoming the first team since Florida in 2007 to cut the nets down for the second straight year.
The Wildcats looked very beatable as they struggled to put away No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s, which outplayed the Big East champions for much of the game before the Mountaineers were eventually overwhelmed by a more talented team. Mount’s smaller guards were initially too quick and the Philadelphians found themselves in a dogfight at halftime.
Hart and Jalen Brunson scored quickly to open the second half and the Wildcats erased any thoughts this would be the historic No. 16 over No. 1 upset that’s bound to happen someday.
“I would love to tell you I went in there and ripped them, and they all came out fired up, but I really didn’t,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We had a little nerves. They did a great job of holding the ball until late in the possession and then letting their little guards go and create plays, and it was working.”
The matchup against Wisconsin figures to be a grind-it-out affair. And that could help the Badgers, who have seemingly flipped a switch since losing five of their last seven games in conference play.
For Hayes, whose 147 career points in the tournament are the most among active players, and fellow seniors Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown, this is their last chance at an NCAA title.
Hayes remembers being an underclassmen and not understanding the urgency.
He’s living it now. There is no next year.
“Once you see that run end, you know the look on the guys’ faces, the pain that you can hear,” he said. “I saw that at a young age, and I want to make sure I do everything in my power to not let that happen. I even mentioned to the guys having to being willing to die for the opportunity to play in a national championship. I know it may sound extreme, but I’d rather go out there and give everything I have.”
In Saturday’s other East region game at Orlando, Florida, No. 4 seed Florida (25-8) takes on No. 5 seed Virginia (23-10).
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.