There were times, and not an insignificant amount of them, when Wisconsin looked completely lost this season.
The Badgers had a nightmarish start, losing home non-conference games to the likes of Western Illinois, UW-Milwaukee and Marquette. Then came Bo Ryan’s out-of-nowhere retirement. Then came a 1-4 start to Big Ten play.
It looked like — for the first time this century — Wisconsin was going to miss the NCAA tournament.
And yet here we are on the second weekend of the Big Dance, and the Badgers look like the Big Ten’s best shot to reach the Elite Eight.
That proclamation comes with a caveat or two, obviously. The other two of the conference’s representatives in the Sweet Sixteen had to and have to go up against No. 1 seeds. Maryland lost to Kansas on Thursday, and Indiana takes on North Carolina on Friday night. Plus, Wisconsin hasn’t necessarily been overpowering so far in this tournament, scoring just 16 first-half points in its first-round win over Pittsburgh and needing Bronson Koenig’s miraculous buzzer-beating 3-pointer to take down Xavier in the Round of 32.
The Badgers go up against Notre Dame, a No. 6 seed, in Friday night’s battle for an Elite Eight ticket. If they win, they’ll be playing in the Elite Eight for the third straight season, something believed almost impossible this season without Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, not to mention Josh Gasser, Traveon Jackson and Duje Dukan.
What a transformation it’s been — and under a new head coach in Greg Gard, who took over midstream — from a 9-9 start.
“The biggest thing was the chemistry in the locker room. And that grew immensely during that time from late December through the first part of February,” Gard said Thursday in Philadelphia. “I think with losing so many guys from last year, with four seniors, two of them being fifth-year guys that have been in the program a long time and Sam Dekker leaving early, we just had a lot of shoes to fill and a lot of roles to establish yet. And it took us a while to grow through that.
“And I think all those adverse moments we went through early in the year helped fortify and establish our identity and roles of everybody on the team, and it just took a little while for that. But the biggest thing is the locker room, how that's grown, come together, the chemistry that's evolved there. And that eventually started to show itself on the floor.”
Gard is no stranger to this program. Though he might not be the commanding — and screaming — presence of Ryan, he’s been in Madison as long as the legendary Ryan was, coming over from UW-Milwaukee ahead of the 2001-02 season.
“He had been there for so long, he had been coaching with coach Ryan for so many years, that it wasn't really much of a change because they generated the same philosophies on everything," Koenig said. "And he told us right from the start that it wasn't about him, that it was about the players and he was going to do his best to make sure that we are in the best position possible for success. And that's what he did. And he told us it wasn't an audition for him. So he just made it all about his players.”
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Back, too, were Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played big roles on the teams that went to back-to-back Final Fours. They were expected to expand upon those roles. But aside from those two, the rest was unknown. Ethan Happ had big expectations but was just a redshirt freshman. Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter were sparingly used last season as reserves and now forced into the starting lineup.
When Hayes and Koenig got off to inconsistent starts, there wasn’t much else to make up for it. But Happ and Brown turned it on, Happ eventually earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He had perhaps a stronger case of making the All-Big Ten First Team than Hayes, who did crack that prestigious roster.
Somewhere along the line, the Badgers found themselves with an entire lineup of reliable players, not just two guys. After losing four of their first five games of conference play, they rattled off seven straight wins and 11 victories in a stretch of 12 games, not just getting themselves into the NCAA tournament field of 68 but making themselves a lock.
“I think what happened was it was more a sense of urgency combined with guys starting to believe in themselves,” Hayes said. “And it especially happened after the Northwestern game as you all know, the story has been told a million times. But after that the message I was trying to spread to the guys was that not only collectively are we better than that, but individually the guys out there. And they're better players than what they and we have been playing like.
“And in order for us to do something, do what we all expect we can do and start to actually win some games we had to change our mindset in the way we approached it. And once guys embodied that, our play picked up as a team and collectively we came together, guys started playing better and we just tried to ride that confidence and that wave from here on out.”
The sensational turnaround meant Gard was stripped of his interim tag and rewarded with a five-year deal, exactly what Ryan wanted when he stepped down midseason.
But more importantly, as Hayes mentioned, came confidence.
Yes, maybe the Badgers are only here because Pitt couldn’t win that first-round slog, maybe only here because Koenig’s circus shot dropped in. But they’re here nonetheless. And in a tournament that’s proven over and over in a short amount of time that absolutely anything can happen — where one team can win on a half-court buzzer-beater one night and that same team can blow a double-digit lead in less than a minute two nights later — all Wisconsin needs is one more win to keep on dancing in this season of the improbable up in Madison.