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Why not Wisconsin? Badgers believe they can go deep again

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes has his team focused on winning big in March again. (AP/Charley Neibergall)

ST. LOUIS — So, who let the sluggos from Madtown into this here NCAA Tournament, anyway?

If you’re Big Ten wise, chances are you’re fairly familiar with the story of the 2015-16 Wisconsin Badgers. In a nutshell: Legendary coach Bo Ryan left them suddenly in December. A month later, they were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in conference play — gasping for life.

The Big Dance? Fat chance. Even a .500 season seemed for a while like a real reach.

Yet — led by interim coach Greg Gard, who’d been a longtime, low-profile Ryan assistant — the Badgers went on an impossible-to-see-coming tear, winning 11 of 12 games to turn things around and put themselves in position to show up to a place like this.

Still, to college basketball fans who don’t pay much mind to the Big Ten, these Badgers must be an unrecognizable, motley-looking crew.

Gone is Ryan, who was the face of the program and gave Wisconsin basketball its identity. Gone is Frank Kaminsky, who was the national player of the year and a 2015 NBA lottery pick. Gone are fellow first-round pick Sam Dekker and a trio of players — Josh Gasser, Duje Dukan and Traevon Jackson — who were keys to making everything work with Ryan’s Badgers.

And, for crying out loud, what didn’t work? They were a Final Four team in 2014 and, a year later, reached the national title game.

A lot of folks figure all that momentum must be gone, too.

“Twenty-one years of [player] experience — along with a Hall of Fame coach — walked out the door,” said Gard, who shed the “interim” tag last week and will lead the East Region seventh-seeded Badgers against No. 10 seed Pittsburgh here Wednesday night.

“But these guys had to kind of find their own way, so to speak, and grow. Regardless of who was coaching the team, we knew there was going to be a growth spurt, or a growth process, that was going to have to take place.”

Junior forward Nigel Hayes, the team’s top returning player, found his leadership voice during a players’-only meeting after a defeat at Northwestern. Hayes took responsibility for his so-so play during the first 18 games and challenged teammates to join him in accepting the challenges of the season head-on.

Vitto Brown — after two seasons in which he was best known for singing the national anthem before games — toughened up and become a major contributor in the frontcourt. Junior point guard Bronson Keonig stopped beating himself up after bad possessions. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ channeled everything he’d learned guarding Kaminsky in practice the season before and became a Big Ten standout.

“We righted the ship, turned things around and here we are,” Hayes said.

Where is “here”? Probably not in position to contend again for a national title. There are a pair of No. 2 seeds — Michigan State (Midwest) and Xavier (East) — in this town alone this weekend that seem far more likely to go deep in the tournament.

If your bracket doesn’t have the Badgers losing to Pittsburgh, then it probably has them losing to Xavier.

Like these guys could care less if they tried.

“Last year, we wanted to win the national championship,” Hayes said. “We believed we’d win, and the only difference was you guys believed in us, too.

“This year, we want to win the national championship. We believe we can, but you guys don’t think we can, which is, you know, fine.”

Two months ago, the Wisconsin fan base was stuck in wait-’til-next-year gear. Some didn’t have even that much hope. With Ryan gone, with the winningest senior class in school history gone — well, who knew if it would ever get really good again?

We’re talking Wisconsin, not Duke or Kentucky or even Michigan State.

But now look at the Badgers. They’re in dismiss-us-if-you-dare gear. Gotta say, it does seem to give them a real chance.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com