MADISON – Head coach Greg Gard isn’t going to get over analytical when trying to figure out if Wisconsin’s early exit in the Big Ten tournament last week is a benefit or not: he’s been around too long.
“You can analyze that 100 different ways,” he said. “If you get knocked out of your conference tournament early everybody says, ‘Oh, you're going to have rest.’ If you go play deep into your conference tournament, and you don't win it, you're going to have fatigued legs and you have nothing to show for it … We just try not to make too much of what's happening in the past and understand we got to be very good for forty minutes on Friday.”
That’s the primary focus for Wisconsin (20-12) heading into its N.C.A.A. tournament first round matchup against Pittsburgh (21-11) at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis (5:50 p.m. CT, TNT).
The other focus is getting back to the principles that had the Badgers win 11 of 12 games to put them in the 68-team field, along with correcting the mistakes from the last two games that saw them give up 91 points to Purdue and beat by Nebraska in Indianapolis.
Losing to a top-15 team that made it to the Big Ten championship game and get a No.5 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament is one thing, but being out hustled by a Cornhuskers team staying home for the postseason is another.
“We were pretty disappointed in the way we performed,” said junior Bronson Koenig. “Not exactly how bad we played, just that we got out played. Nebraska beat us to every loose ball, rebounds and just played tougher than us. That’s what’s been our identity the past couple months. For us to come out like that against Nebraska, a team we feel we should have beaten, we were pretty disappointed.”
A repeat performance will mean Wisconsin will be bounced from the first round for the first time since 2006. Pittsburgh’s style of play mirrors Wisconsin’s – blue-collared, tough and aggressive. The Panthers average 12.8 offensive rebounds with five players having at least 40 offensive rebounds.
In Pitt’s signature win against Duke Feb.28, the Panthers turned 16 offensive rebounds in 19 second-chance points.
Pitt’s best player is a 6-9, 235-pound junior forward named Michael Young, who leads the team in scoring (16.0) offensive (75) and total rebounds (223) and free-throw attempts (174).
Wisconsin’s limited knowledge of Pittsburgh Sunday night stemmed from that Duke game, so the main message the Badgers had been dealing with leading up to Selection Sunday was how to be better on both ends of the floor than they were against Nebraska.
Not only were the Badgers out hustled for 50-50 loose balls and struggled to stop dribble penetration last Thursday, Gard estimated the Badgers left 34 points on the rim in the paint by being unable to convert high percentage shots.
Wisconsin shot 30.2 percent overall (16 of 52) and 20 percent from 3-point range (4 of 20) in the 70-58 loss.
“We had opportunities, still got to convert those and for the most part we've done that through the course of the last three months,” said Gard. “We have to learn from (the loss), flush it and move on and get ready for what's next."
Added Nigel Hayes: “It's just a matter of the will and want by the players. When it gets boiled down to it, that's why you have the upsets that you have, because the lower seed usually just wants to win more, and they do the things like we talked that made us lose to Nebraska.”
Duke, Kentucky and Wisconsin were the clear dominant teams entering the tournament a year ago, and all three made the Final Four. This year the combined 23 losses of the four number one seeds entering the tournament is the most all time and no team in the field has fewer than four losses.
With all the parity in the tournament, Wisconsin hopes it can take advance by surprising some people with another deep tournament run … if they play its brand of basketball.
“We can’t let any team play harder than us,” said Koenig. “We can lose to anyone. We can also beat anyone in the country.”
“I'm sure guys are going to step up big for the tournament,” he added. “I can definitely see that. We haven't played our best basketball yet either. Now would be a great time for us to start playing up to our potential.”