INDIANAPOLIS – Following Wisconsin’s 91-80 loss to No.15 Purdue at Mackey Arena Sunday, head coach Greg Gard huddled his players longer in the visiting locker room than normal. It wasn’t for a tongue lashing or extensive breakdown. According to freshman Ethan Happ, the message was one of praise, saying how far the Badgers have come in such a short time.
However, there was one point that Gard wanted to make clear.
“Our ceiling has not been reached at all,” said Happ. “We left a lot out there.”
Wisconsin has a chance to prove its worthiness when it defends its Big Ten tournament title this week. Finishing in a four-way tie for third place but losing all the tiebreakers, the Badgers (20-11) are seeded sixth and their quest to win four games in four days starts with a second-round matchup with No.11 Nebraska (15-17) tonight at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.
After being the tournament’s top seed a year ago, Wisconsin is a long shot this season but have gone through the hardest schedule in the conference to give them the confidence to beat anyone, anywhere.
When the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers to the league at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the conference did away with its round-robin schedule and instituted a new format that would have teams play five league teams home and away, four teams only on the road and four teams only at home.
Gard doesn’t know how the schedules are created, only that whatever computer the Big Ten used wasn’t a big fan of them this year.
“Our group has been battle tested,” he said. “Especially for a younger team, we’ve really gone through the gauntlet, and really here the last two, three weeks as we’ve come down the stretch.”
Over the final seven games of the regular season, Wisconsin played five road games and four came against ranked opponents – No.2 Maryland, No.8 Michigan State, No.8 Iowa and No.15 Purdue. The Badgers split those games, giving the Terrapins and Hawkeyes their first home loss of the season.
“Our schedule was really back loaded and who we played twice,” said Gard.
Break down the schedule even further and Wisconsin played 10 of its 18 conference games against the top half of the league. Of the teams that finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten, the Badgers only played Illinois twice.
For comparison, Indiana played 10 games against the league’s bottom half while Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue played nine. Not including Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan State played only two teams on the road that finished third place or higher while Purdue played three.
It’s a reason why the Badgers’ young group feel they’ve grown up a lot since the beginning of January.
“I think we’ve matured a lot and played in a lot of really tough environments,” said junior Bronson Koenig. “We’re pretty ready to go in anywhere. It doesn’t matter, the gym.”
The one benefit of Wisconsin’s demanding schedule is that is emphasized the importance of following the game plan and embracing the challenges to the inexperienced roster.
With Gard installing the swing offense from the time he took over Dec.15, the Badgers are 345th (out of 351 division-1 teams) in adjusted tempo with 63.9 possessions in 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com, but maximize it by shooting 44.6 percent in conference games (sixth in the league) and 38.0 percent from 3-point line (fourth in the league)
Throw in the fact Wisconsin finished first in the Big Ten in scoring defense in conference games (63.9 points), the Badgers’ ability to play their style and be a pester defensively helped them win 11 of their final 13 games.
Playing themselves out of the Big Ten cellar and into next week’s N.C.A.A. tournament is a huge achievement on its own, but the defending conference tournament champions know their hardened persona could give them an edge this week.
“From here on out we're only guaranteed two more games,” junior Nigel Hayes said. “Each game is win or go home. We made a great comeback in the league, but we have another chance in the tournament to try to get a Big Ten championship.”