Wisconsin has made the NCAA tournament 18 straight times. During that span, dating back to the 1999 season, they’ve been to five Sweet 16s, two Elite 8s, and back-to-back Final Fours in 2014-15.
Notre Dame cannot boast such success. This is the second straight NCAA tournament appearance for the Irish, and eighth in the last 10 years. For the second year in a row, Notre Dame is headed to the Sweet 16 and is shooting for back-to-back Elite 8s.
Under Mike Brey, the Irish have gone to 11 NCAA tournaments in 16 years. Prior to 2015, the last Sweet 16 trip came in 2003. Before Brey’s first year in 2001, Notre Dame’s previous NCAA tournament appearance came in 1990.
When No. 6 seed Notre Dame (23-11) takes on No. 7 seed Wisconsin (22-12) Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, two teams with similar makeups on the same current path have taken divergent routes in recent history.
The Irish want what the Badgers have had, first under Bo Ryan, and now under Greg Gard.
The success ratio is different, but the approach rings very familiar to those around Notre Dame.
“They’re efficient like us,” said Brey Tuesday in his team’s final Purcell Pavilion tune-up before hitting the road for Philadelphia Wednesday.
“Bo and I used to talk a lot when we were on the NABC board together, about how we’ve kind of philosophically built our programs similarly with skill guys and basketball IQ guys. They certainly play that way on the way to victory.”
Neither team exactly gets the pick of the top 100 litter. Ryan/Gard and Brey have to look past the talent deluge to places like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas to find the components that will help them develop into a cohesive team that thrives on chemistry and a structural identity over high-flying acts on the hardwood.
Make no mistake, both teams have risen to the heights they have because of elite basketball talent. Last season, Frank Kaminsky III and Sam Dekker – the ninth and 18th overall picks in the NBA draft – led Wisconsin to its second consecutive Final Four.
The Irish, meanwhile, made their first Elite 8 appearance since 1979 with Jerian Grant, the pick after Dekker in last year’s first round, and Pat Connaughton, who was tabbed in the second round (41st overall pick).
“Maybe we had better players,” said a coy Brey of Notre Dame’s recent success. “We’ve had a year of kind of having some pros two years in a row. Probably talent has a lot to do with that.
“I’m kind of a believer that that thing is a little bit of a crapshoot, and the law of averages can come around and help you. But there’s no question that our talent level has been a little bit higher recently.”
Gard took over for Ryan in late-December when the 67-year-old coach abruptly retired with the Badgers sitting at 7-5 in non-conference play. With just one more non-conference game before the start of the Big Ten season, Gard assumed control. It was a rocky beginning.
The Badgers lost four of their first five conference games with the final indignity coming at Northwestern, falling to 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play.
Wisconsin then won 11 of its last 13 conference games, including victories over Michigan State and Indiana at home and Maryland and Iowa on the road. They lost their final regular-season game against Purdue and then were tripped up by Nebraska in the first game of the Big Ten tournament.
The Badgers have righted themselves with NCAA tournament wins over Pittsburgh and Xavier.
Notre Dame’s road to Philadelphia had its own early- and late-season challenges. Losses to Monmouth and Alabama in Orlando kicked off a shaky December. The Irish stumbled out of the gate at the start of ACC play, falling to 1-2 before winning eight of their next 10 to put themselves in the running for an ACC tournament double-bye.
Yet the Irish struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last seven regular-season games, including a 21-point loss to Florida State, an 18-point setback to Miami, and a 31-point whitewashing at the hands of North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
The Irish had to slug their way past Michigan and Stephen F. Austin to match up with Wisconsin.
“I think Greg Gard should be the national coach of the year,” Brey said. “They were 9-9, 1-4 in the Big Ten. He takes the situation and it’s dramatic and crazy. The job he’s done getting them playing how they’re playing, I’m really impressed.”
When both Notre Dame and Wisconsin are playing well, it’s done with offensive efficiency. The Badgers boast a better defensive program than Notre Dame’s, but a cohesive unit frequently trumps programs with more pure physical talent.
“Offensively and defensively, we do some similar things,” said Irish junior Steve Vasturia.
“They have great movement like we do,” said 6-foot-10 senior Zach Auguste. “They’re kind of similar to us.”
“We know they’re a great team,” added junior V.J. Beachem. “They’re really good defensively and they have great guard play. They’re great on the wings and inside as well. We’re going to have our hands full. They’re going to be ready to go.”
The offensive commonality between the two programs is undeniable. Whichever team does the better job defending that offense likely will come out on top.
“They’re averaging 62 possessions a game in the NCAA tournament,” said Brey of Wisconsin. “Everybody thinks we’re this track meet. During the year, they were like 340 in pace and we were probably 318, 320 in pace.
“We’re grinding too. The one thing that I think has helped us since the N.C. State game is we’re pushing that thing up the floor and looking for some buckets. That helped us in both games in Brooklyn.”
Notre Dame and Wisconsin have been infrequent competitors over the years. Their last meeting was in 2010 when the Irish defeated the Badgers in the Thanksgiving weekend Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
Prior to that, the Irish and Badgers hadn’t played since 1968 when Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer – Austin Carr – was a sophomore.
Notre Dame and Wisconsin first played in 1927, yet they’ve squared off just 28 times with the Irish holding an 18-10 lead in the series.
The Irish will have their hands full against the Badgers, and if they’re fortunate to get past their Friday night foe, it will be even more difficult on Easter Sunday when Notre Dame would take on the winner of North Carolina-Indiana.
Brey wouldn’t put anything past his inspired squad.
“There’s a nucleus of guys here that feels they’re supposed to do it in this tournament,” said Brey of his team. “That’s nothing you can coach. It has to be (gained) by experience. You can suggest a little bit, but you’ve got to have some success and just go get it, and certainly this nucleus has done that.
“To get to this point, fighting through and having some tough times -- especially losing two in Orlando and kind of being written off -- I give a lot of credit to your leadership.”