It truly is a remarkable story. The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team was really in a state of flux earlier this year. The team was just 1-4 in the Big 10 and 9-9 overall. Legendary coach Bo Ryan had recently resigned and had given the head coaching reins to long-time assistant Greg Gard.
It had been a rough season for the Badgers up to that point, as Wisconsin was trying to overcome the losses of five key players from last year’s 36-4 team, which made it to the finals of the NCAA tournament. Included in that group were Frank Kaminsky (National College Player of the Year) and Sam Dekker, both of whom became first-round picks in the NBA draft.
Adding to that misery, the Badgers had shockingly lost to Western Illinois, plus had been beaten by state rivals UWM and Marquette.
At that point in time, it sure looked like a couple of streaks would be ending. Certainly the Badgers wouldn’t finish in the finish in the top four of the Big 10 for the 15th consecutive year. Nor would the Badgers make the NCAA tournament for 18th consecutive time.
Those streaks were done, right? Wrong!
Thanks to the leadership and guidance of Gard, the Badgers turned their season around. The Badgers won 11 out of their last 13 games in conference play to finish with a 12-6 record, which was good enough to finish in a tie for third place.
Included in those victory totals were wins against Michigan State and Indiana at home, plus wins versus Maryland and Iowa on the road.
The turnaround for the Badgers also got them a bid to the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive year.
Wisconsin wasn’t exactly hot when they faced Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament in St. Louis. The Badgers had lost their last conference game of the year to Purdue on the road, plus were one and done in the Big Ten tournament, as Nebraska shocked Wisconsin.
In addition to that, the veteran leaders of the Badgers, junior’s Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, were as cold as ice shooting the ball.
The ice cold shooting woes of Hayes and Koenig continued versus Pitt, as Wisconsin was down by as many as 12 points in the first half. But somehow the seventh-seeded Badgers scrapped back.
Wisconsin was led by redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, who had 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Vitto Brown continued to be clutch from three-point range, as he also chipped in 11 points. Zak Showalter also helped out with a key steal and played excellent defense, as the Badgers gutted out an ugly 47-43 win.
Hayes was just 3-of-17 in shooting, but did still chipped in 11 points, thanks to six free throws. Koenig was just 1-of-8 shooting the ball and had just two points. Still, the Badgers advanced to take on the second-seeded Xavier Musketeers.
Not many people gave the Badgers a chance against Xavier, who were 28-5 heading into the game against the Badgers and were coming off a 71-53 thrashing of Weber State in the first round of the tournament.
If the Badgers had any chance at all, Hayes and Koenig had to start making some shots, plus Happ, Brown and Showalter had to make some solid contributions as well.
The bad news for the Badgers was that Hayes continued to be frigid in terms of his shooting, as he made just 2-of-10 shots and finished with just six points against Xavier.
Koenig also started out very cold, but he kept shooting and finally the shots started dropping, as he finished with 20 points, including 6-of-12 three-pointers.
Happ was very solid again with 18 points and seven rebounds, as was Brown, who once again hit some a couple of key three-point shots, as he ended up with 12 points.
Showalter also came up with a couple of game-shifting plays once again.
The Badgers were down by nine points with about six minutes left, but they never wavered.
Gard knew his team could come back. He has seen the same thing up close over the past couple of months.
“As I told the team in the locker room,” Gard said, “this game was kind of a microcosm of our season from the standpoint of November, December, January.
“It was like three minutes to go being down seven or eight, whatever we were, and this group would not quit, would not give in. We knew we had some fight left in us and eventually the ball was going to go in.”
It came down to three big plays. Two by Koenig and one by Showalter. The Badgers were down 63-60 when Koenig nailed a clutch three-pointer to tie the game with 11.7 seconds left.
Then it was Showalter’s turn. The Badgers got the ball back with 4.3 seconds left when Showalter drew a charge against Xavier freshman guard Edmund Sumner.
“The play Showalter made to get the charge was huge,” Gard said. “That’s why the kid’s on the floor and why he is in the program. That was a big-time play.”
The Badgers then got the ball past mid-court and called a timeout with 2.0 seconds left. After the timeout, Happ inbounded the ball to Koenig, who raced to the deep right corner and tossed up a game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer.
“I told Ethan before the play even started, I knew I wanted the ball,” said Koenig. “So I went up to him and told him, pass to me if I’m open.
“And I got open. He did a great job of hitting me. And to answer your question, I knew it was going in before it even left my hand because that’s a shot I practice quite a bit pregame with Nigel Hayes one-on-one and I do a lot of step-backs in the corner.
“I let it fly and I knew it was going in. I can’t really explain the feeling after I hit it. I think it was my first real game-winner – well, kind of like that. So, yeah, it was a lot of excitement.”
What this means is that the Badgers will be advancing the the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years. Wisconsin is the only team in the country that can claim that notoriety.
The Badgers will be facing Notre Dame in Philadelphia Friday night for the right to advance to the Elite Eight. If Wisconsin does win, it will be the third straight year the Badgers have advanced to that stage of the tournament.
Can the Badgers continue this improbable journey? I know that their head coach believes in them.
“I’ve always had confidence in them even when we were 1-4 and 9-9,” Gard said. “And the thing that I’ve talked about, and they’re probably tired of me hearing the word process, to stick to the process and not deviate from the plan.”
So far, the plan has taken the Badgers to the Sweet 16.