Momentum is a powerful thing, particularly when it comes to NCAA tournament success.
And though it looked at one point like this group of Badgers might not even have a chance to defend their national runner-up status in the tourney, Wisconsin — without Bo Ryan on the sideline — is currently the Big Ten's hottest team. On a six-game winning streak, the question has rapidly changed from whether the Badgers can even get on the tournament bubble to exactly how much noise they can make if invited to the Big Dance.
Consecutive victory No. 6 came Wednesday night, when Wisconsin defeated visiting Nebraska, 72-61, in Madison. The Badgers trailed by as many as six in the first half and led by just a bucket in the opening moments of the second half, but they outscored the Huskers, 42-35, over the final 20 minutes and led by as many as 17. Wisconsin shot 51.2 percent from the field and splashed home 11 3-pointers, Nigel Hayes leading the way with 20 points and Vitto Brown scoring 18 and going a perfect 3-for-3 from deep.
The Badgers sit at 7-4 in the conference, currently good for sixth in the ever-changing Big Ten standings. That's a better conference mark than Michigan State, a top-10 team, and just a half game worse than the two teams directly ahead, Purdue and Michigan.
A six-game conference winning streak — one that includes wins over Michigan State and Indiana — was believed impossible by many earlier this season, when Wisconsin was struggling to beat anybody. The season opened with a home loss to Western Illinois. Double-digit losses to Georgetown and Oklahoma followed. Then came back-to-back home losses to in-state foes Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette. Five non-conference losses, regardless of how much talent had departed from last year's national runner-up roster, was a shock to system.
Then came the biggest shock when Ryan retired midseason, handing the keys over to Greg Gard.
With Hayes and Bronson Koenig struggling to get their footing as the team's new go-to guys and the rest of the team showing its inexperience, it looked like a rare rebuilding season for a program Ryan developed into a perennial conference contender. In 14 seasons, Ryan's Badgers never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten. That streak looked very much in jeopardy when the Badgers opened league play without Ryan, losers of four of their first five conference games.
But certainly things have changed. Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten's best defensive teams, allowing an average of 64.5 points per game to conference opponents. In the last five games, Badger opponents are shooting 41.4 percent. But the offensive improvements in recent weeks have been even more noticeable. During the six-game winning streak, the Badgers have shot a combined 47.1 percent from the field. And after making no more than eight 3-pointers in a single game through the season's first 22 games, Wisconsin has hit a combined 24 3s in the last two outings.
Individually, Hayes has emerged as the production leader everyone thought he would when Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker took their talents to the NBA after last year's second straight Final Four run. Hayes has been stellar in conference play, tied with Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff for fourth in the league in conference-only scoring with 18.5 points per game. His season average is 17.3 points per game, a full point and a half per game higher than it was before this winning streak started. In the last six games, Hayes has scored 20 or more points four times — including a 31-point game against Indiana — and is averaging 21.5 points per game during the stretch.
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While Koenig hasn't showed the same level of production, he's remained an important piece of a group that now has many more reliable role players than it seemed they had at the start of the season. Coming into the year, few aside from Hayes and Koenig had seen much of the court during the Badgers' back-to-back deep tournament runs, so it's understandable they've taken time to get used to being relied on. But Koenig, Brown, Ethan Happ and Zak Showalter have made for a fine supporting cast around Hayes. Koenig and Happ are top-30 scorers in the conference during Big Ten play, and Happ is a top-five rebounder and leads the league in steals.
So what does the rest of this season look like for the Badgers? Well, we'll find out exactly what they're made of very soon, as three tremendously difficult games remain on the regular-season schedule with road trips to Maryland, Michigan State and Iowa, all currently ranked in the top 10. The games in College Park and East Lansing are next for Wisconsin, meaning their winning streak might not be long for this world. But strong showings in those games — which have already happened in previous meetings, as the Badgers have a win over the Spartans and lost to the Terps on a buzzer-beating game-winner by Melo Trimble — would not negatively impact Wisconsin's tournament standing too much, particularly if the other three remaining regular-season games against Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota are all wins.
No Ryan. No Kaminsky. No Dekker. An 8-5 non-conference mark with three losses at home and a 1-4 start to Big Ten play. And yet, as if you could set your watch by it, here come the Badgers, piling up Big Ten wins and heading toward March with momentum.
Ryan's teams made the tournament every year he was at Wisconsin, and only twice did Wisconsin fail to get out of the Round of 64. It'll still be a fight to make the field of 68, with ESPN guru Joe Lunardi placing the Badgers in the "first four out" category in his latest bracket projection. But if Wisconsin does get an invite to the Big Dance, expect Gard's team to play like a Ryan team. Expect the Badgers to make some noise.