MADISON – Stuck in one of the worst starts in the Bo Ryan/Greg Gard era, Wisconsin players never gave in that this was a rebuilding year. They were right.
"As I've told you guys for the last couple months, couple weeks, all season, I believed in the guys and I knew that we would be a good team," said junior Nigel Hayes. "I told you guys there would be growing pains. There were definitely growing pains. First night, first game of the year there were growing pains. Once we got over that hump, guys started gelling together, guys got the experience that they needed that we knew they would need to perform well and things started to take care of itself."
Winning 11 of its final 14 games to continue its program-record of 18 straight N.C.A.A. tournament appearances (tied for the fourth longest current streak in the nation), Wisconsin (20-12) was rewarded for its comeback by being given the No.7 seed in the East Region, opening play Friday against 10th-seed Pittsburgh in St. Louis. Tip time will be at 5:50 p.m. on TNT.
The winner will play the winner of No.2 Xavier and No.15 Weber State with that winner going to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia.
"They play a lot like we play in terms of blue collar and tough and man-to-man and really come after you, what Coach (Jamie) Dixon's teams are like over the years," Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said of Pittsburgh. "It'll be a huge challenge for us on Friday."
Kansas (South), Oregon (West), Virginia (Midwest) and North Carolina (East) were named the number one seeds, with Kansas named the tournament’s overall top seed.
After starting the season 9-9, which included four unsightly losses to teams that finished with a RPI over 100, Wisconsin finished with a top 40 RPI and went 6-2 against the RPI top 100 since Jan.17. Although losing in the Big Ten tournament second round, Wisconsin’s 12-6 Big Ten record secured a top-four conference finish (tied for third place this season) for the 16th-consecutive season, the longest such streak in Big Ten history.
"If you really reflected back to January 15th, I'm not sure we would have all said this day was going to be possible and obtainable," said Gard. "For how far they've come in the past two months is an extreme credit to them ... For the program to make its 18th consecutive appearance in this tournament, I don't know if there's another team in this field of 68 that has a more turbulent ride ... This group has overcome a lot."
This will be the 19th meeting between UW and Pittsburgh (21-11, 9-9 ACC), the most recent a 89-75 UW victory in 2006. The Badgers have never beaten the Panthers on a neutral court, including a 59-55 defeat in the 2004 N.C.A.A. tournament in Milwaukee. Wisconsin is 40-40 against teams currently in the ACC.
UW joins six other Big Ten teams (Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue) in the 68-team field.
The Badgers are 34-20 in 21 previous appearances in the N.C.A.A. tournament, including 9-2 the last two seasons.
"Last year we wanted to win the national championship and we believed we could; this year we want to win the national championship and we believe we can," said Hayes. "The only difference is people thought last year we could and this year you don't. We could care less. It's always been we're worried about us, and when we go into the tournament, we have to take it one game at a time and believe in ourselves. If we play as hard as we can, good things usually happen."
After having a bad taste in its mouth from a loss to Nebraska Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, Wisconsin is anxious to get back on the court.
"We're excited to get back out there, especially after losing the past two games," said junior Bronson Koenig. "We're excited to get out there and start playing again."