“It was insane,” recalled Smith. “Getting police escorts to games, the band to send you off at the hotel. It’s kind of surreal.”
The pomp and circumstances of the national tournament will be front and center for the Badgers’ young team starting tonight when they depart for St. Louis in preparation for its N.C.A.A. tournament opener against 10th-seed Pittsburgh (22-11) at the Scottrade Center Friday night.
Of the 16 players able to travel in the tournament (freshman Andy Van Vliet cannot), six will be experiencing their first N.C.A.A. tournament. Ethan Happ – who redshirted last year and said he spent it doing homework and eating cookies – will play in his first tournament game, while “veteran” rotation players Vitto Brown and Jordan Hill will see meaningful minutes for the first time.
“I’ve been watching it since I was a little kid,” Happ said, referencing the tournament. “I feel like it’s every kid’s dream to play in the N.C.A.A. tournament and win a national championship.”
One of the messages Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard has pulled from his mentor – former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan – is the one-game-at-a-time philosophy. The Badgers haven’t been in a multi-day tournament situation since November, playing Georgetown and Virginia Commonwealth a day a part in the 2K Classic in New York. Their stay in the Big Ten tournament last week was brief.
While millions of people try to dissect and predict each of the 67 games in the tournament, Gard is only worried about Wisconsin defending the Panthers’ efficient offense - tied for 23rd nationally in KenPom.com raw offensive efficiency at 112.7 points per 100 possessions – and matching their physicality, something that was missing in last week’s surprise loss to Nebraska.
“If we ever got caught up trying to do it another way, we wouldn’t be playing this time of year,” said Gard. “We wouldn’t have made it. We would have been focused on the wrong things.”
Smith has enjoyed a lot of fun in the tournament in the last four years for the Badgers, three Sweet 16s (including that 2012 season) and a pair of Final Fours. Each year bringing more excitement and distractions as the team advances.
Last year after Wisconsin beat undefeated Kentucky to reach its first national final since 1941, video of Badgers fans packing the lobby of the team’s hotel following the game to celebrate went viral.
“You’ve got to focus, especially for these young guys that have never experienced this before,” said Smith. “It’s really cool and eye-opening for them, but you have to put the blinders on. All year we’ve sat (the freshmen) down and told them it’s going to be different, and you’re going to see a lot of stuff that’s going to be exciting, but you need to make sure everybody is focused on their job.”
A first-team All-Big Ten pick, Hayes leads the Badgers in scoring (16.3 ppg) and assists (3.0 apg) while ranking second in rebounds (5.8 rpg). He also paces the Big Ten in free throws attempted, going 181-for-244 (.742) at the line.
A third-team All-Big Ten pick, Koenig is averaging 13.4 ppg and shot 42.3 percent from 3-point range in conference play.
UW will need depth from its young bench experiencing its first N.C.A.A. thrill, but they’ll need the experience of its two leaders of consecutive Final Fours to shine through.
“I expect them to lead like they have,” said Gard. “Hopefully they can step in. You need your star players to play well in order to advance. All the average to bad teams are sitting at home or on spring break. You need your good players to step up and play and you’re going to have to play well as a unit. Typically in this tournament, if you have 5-to-10 minutes of inconsistent or poor play, you’re done. You have to be very consistent and it starts with those two guys. “