PantherDigest: Wisconsin is a much different team than last year's, both on the court and the sidelines, but what makes the Badgers a team that could be successful in the Tournament?
Benjamin Worgull: They are resilient. Wisconsin can’t recruit five-star talent (heck, has a hard time recruiting four-star talent) and lost three major pieces from last year’s national finalist team. In December they lost the winningest coach in school history. In January they were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play. And yet through all of it, here they are for an 18th straight season. Once the Badgers tasted success with a home win over No.4 Michigan State Jan.17, they rolled from that point forward.
Greg Gard - Wisconsin’s new head coach – said he probably has the most battle-tested team in the field. This team ended No.2 Maryland’s 27-game home winning streak and No.8 Iowa’s 16-game home winning streak within 11 days of each other. They have experience in a pair of starters who have been to back-to-back Final Fours, a young talented post player in Ethan Happ, a solid defender in Zak Showalter and some pieces around them who can pop up and contribute.
PD: Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are key contributors this year after they helped lead Wisconsin to last year's title game, but who has stepped up for Wisconsin this season?
BW: Hayes came into the season with a huge target on his back and, quite frankly, didn’t appear ready for it. He tweaked his shot in the offseason and struggled with the consistency of it early on. He also wasn’t ready to immediately jump into the leadership role after being a role player for two years. It wasn’t the sole reason, but it certainly was a part of reason why Wisconsin suffered five nonconference losses, three ugly ones at home nonetheless where the Badgers have been such a force over the last 15 years.
It took a loss at Northwestern in mid-January, a game in which Wisconsin was porous defensively and were not the hungrier, disciplined, more aggressive team, all a complete opposite of its identity, that Hayes hit his boiling point.
Before meeting with the media, he addressed the players behind closed doors in the visitor’s locker room, revealing he used the words “embarrassing” and that each player needed to look himself in the mirror to ask themselves what they wanted from basketball and this season.
Stewing on the Northwestern loss for four days, Hayes scored 25 points and Wisconsin beat Michigan State that started a streak in which it won 10 more times in the final 12 games. During Wisconsin’s seven game winning streak that started with that victory over the Spartans, he averaged 20 points.
His shooting still comes and goes (he was 2-for-15 in the surprising Big Ten tournament loss to Nebraska), so the Badgers need him to play like the first-team All-Big Ten selection he is in order to advance.
PD: Wisconsin went on an impressive run during conference play, winning 11 of 12 games, beating some of the nation's top teams and playing arguably some of the nation's best basketball. What was the reaction to receiving a No. 7 seed and do you think this was the right place for the Badgers in the bracket?
BW: A little surprised. It was thought by many in the bracket world that Wisconsin’s lost to Nebraska – its third 150+ RPI loss – would knock them down to the dreaded eight-nine game. When Michigan State – the Big Ten tournament champion – was given at No.2 seed and Indiana – the Big Ten regular season champion – was given a five, it appeared the Big Ten was going to be knocked down a peg or two.
That having been said, Wisconsin appears to have rewarded for its challenging strength of schedule, top 50 RPI, 11 victories over the RPI top 100 and five victories over the RPI top 50. Had UW not lost to Nebraska, a six seed would probably be expected, so a No.7 is about right.
PD: Pitt played three games against Syracuse this season, two with Jim Boeheim coaching and one with Mike Hopkins on the sideline, and the difference in the Orange was noticeable even if the Panthers won all three games. Have you noticed anything different with Greg Gard at the helm instead of Bo Ryan?
BW: It’s a completely different team, although the situation between Syracuse and Wisconsin is a different because Bo Ryan left Dec.15 and hasn’t been seen since. Being appointed on an interim basis, Gard immediately started installing the swing offense – Ryan’s calling card for many years that emphasizes spacing and is a little more deliberate. He also started harping on the defensive fundamentals that were hit and miss the first two months of the year. It took a couple games for things to click, but all the moves paid off in the long run.
Was it a result of Gard bringing new energy where Ryan appeared mentally exhausted, or was it a case that Wisconsin’s young roster just developed and created better chemistry with each other? I think it’s a combination of the two.
PD: What aspect of Pitt do you think Wisconsin could find most challenging, and what do the Badgers need to do to beat the Panthers Friday?
BW: Wisconsin is undersized on the interior with no player above 6-9 … and those two players (Happ and Alex Illikainen) are freshmen playing in their first N.C.A.A. tournament. The Badgers got pushed around by the interior size of Purdue both early in Gard’s tenure and late in Gard’s tenure, so that appears to be a reoccurring problem when UW goes against those big aggressive post players. UW has also suffered at times from guard who are quick off the dribble and can knife their way into the lane. That crushed UW earlier this year and popped up again last Thursday.
If Wisconsin wants to win, it needs to play its brand of basketball – discipline, patience and balance. I truly believe that the Badgers could beat anybody in this tournament or lose to anyone in this tournament. It’s so hit and miss because this team is still growing.