INDIANAPOLIS – Like many homes across the country, Khalil Iverson’s house was a party growing up in the month of March.
Every year when the N.C.A.A. tournament brackets were announced, the Delaware, OH, native would make his predictions, watch the games with his family at parties and dream about having the opportunity to one day play in the national tournament.
It’s part of the reason why he came to Wisconsin, and why this Sunday will be special to hear the Badgers’ name announced.
“Being able to play in it is something special,” said Iverson.
The wave of emotions of Wisconsin’s season will hit another peak when the Badgers officially make the tournament for the 18th straight season. The Badgers entered the year as last year’s national runner-up, played their way out of tournament consideration with a 9-9 start and won 11 of its 12 regular season games to lock up their bid.
Now Wisconsin has lost two straight - including Thursday’s humbling 70-58 loss to below-average Nebraska - that have many wondering if the Badgers have what it takes to sustain a deep tournament run for the third straight year.
“I think we can,” said junior Bronson Koenig. “I think we’ve come a long way and matured a lot from the Oklahoma game, games like that in November and December. Hopefully we can have a lot of positive takeaways from this (Nebraska loss).”
Unlike the last two seasons, however, Wisconsin won’t be among the top eight teams in the field.
For the most part the seeds teams receive are a complete mystery to everyone outside the tournament selection room. And while the Badgers have 10 top-100 RPI wins this season and are No.37 in the RPI, Wisconsin didn’t help itself by losing its third game this season to a team with a RPI over 150.
ESPN lists Wisconsin as a seventh seed in the West region, which would make it three straight tournament appearances in that region for the Badgers. And as fate would have it, the two-seed in the West is projected to be Oregon. Should the seeds hold, the Badgers and Ducks would meet for a third straight season in the round of 32.
Other analysts dropped Wisconsin further. Scout and CBS both list Wisconsin as an eight seed. Scout has UW in the South Region while CBS has the Badgers playing in the closest pod to home – the Midwest Region in Des Moines, Iowa – but seeing a potential second-round matchup with top-seeded Kansas.
No matter where it ends up, four of the nine players who played for Wisconsin Thursday will be competing in their first N.C.A.A. tournament, and that doesn’t count players like Vitto Brown and Jordan Hill who played sparingly in past tournament runs.
“The excitement of being in the N.C.A.A. tournament is one hopefully young people don’t take for granted,” said assistant coach Howard Moore, who was part of the 1994 team that ended UW’s 47-year absence from the tournament. “When we played in ’94, there was an unbelievable euphoria around the program from every player and coach. I don’t think that will change much because it’s never promised to you.”
With a young roster having already played 32 games, perhaps a week off will benefit Wisconsin. After going through a physical slugfest at Purdue Sunday, the Badgers looked tired and fatigued on both ends of the court Thursday, going 4-for-20 on 3-point shots and giving up easy dribble penetration to the rim. Team leaders Nigel Hayes and Koenig were a combined 5-for-27 from the field and freshman of the year Ethan Happ had five turnovers.
A year ago Wisconsin’s veteran roster handled the grind of winning the Big Ten tournament and carried the momentum forward into April. This year’s group doesn’t have that luxury.
“It’s easier to play with confidence going into the tournament, but we can’t let that affect us this year,” said junior Zak Showalter. “We’ve got to change that feeling … we’ve had from having a loss in the tournament. Hopefully we can get back to what we need to do right and fix some things.”
Question is: what does Wisconsin think they need to fix?
“I think we’re going to have to learn this week,” said Showalter. “There’s not one thing that you can really do to fix things. It’s a whole group effort, and starting tomorrow, learn from what we did wrong and go from there.”