Don’t look now, Wisconsin fans, but your overlooked, underseeded, disregarded and utterly degraded basketball team is an underdog again. That’s right, the Badgers’ plucky band of adversity-overcoming, doubt-disproving heart-havers is still not getting the respect it deserves.
Florida is starting the week as a 1.5-point favorite in advance of the teams’ East Region Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night in New York City, which will surely fuel the fire of Bucky’s us-against-the-world complex that has carried it to two NCAA Tournament wins and quickly become the narrative surrounding the team.
Whereas in fact, the razor-thin line – tied for the second-smallest of the remaining games – reflects oddsmakers’ increasing esteem for the eighth-seeded Badgers (27-9), who are predicted to cover the spread against the No. 4 Gators (26-8). Saturday’s stirring, impressive victory over Villanova, the top overall seed in the tourney, extended Wisconsin’s storybook run as the gutsy little engine that could – a bit of a distorted storyline, given the Badgers, who have been to two Final Fours and now four Sweet 16s in the past four years, have the most tournament experience of any team in the field – and you can bet Nigel Hayes and Co. will continue to use the slights, perceived or real, as extra emotional motivation.
"All of these games, we've been the underdog," the senior forward said after defeating the defending-champion Wildcats. "You have all types of ranking systems, statistics, analytics guys. The thing with all those algorithms is they can't calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire. And that's the thing we have."
Really, the Badgers have been favored in almost every game they’ve played this season, including most of the contests during their recent slump, when they lost five out of six games a few weeks ago. Wisconsin returned almost all of its talent from a 2016 Sweet 16 team, ran out to a 21-3 record to start the year and was ranked as high as seventh in the country, before a home loss to Northwestern on Feb. 12 began its late-campaign struggles.
"Just so excited and proud of these guys," head coach Greg Gard said after the win over Villanova. "Because they've had to battle through a lot this year as we've worked and grown through the season together."
This was a talented, well-coached, veteran team that was always supposed to be where it is now; that’s not to discount the difficult path the Badgers have taken to get here, but the adversity was only ever self-inflicted. Wisconsin wasn’t playing good basketball a month ago; it was patently underachieving. Now the team is playing good basketball, arguably one of the two or three best and most dangerous of the remaining 16 teams.
None of that excuses or explains the head-scratching eight seed the NCAA selection committee awarded the Badgers – we discussed that here, and, clearly, the No. 5 Minnesota and No. 6 Maryland first-round losses confirm those Big Ten teams’ overseedings – and, of course, coaches and players will always opportunistically embrace the snubs to their advantage. But the tenor of the disrespected-Badgers conversation was always more vociferous from fans than the team, especially following Saturday's triumph.
Gard said "seeds don’t matter" and "I told these guys I don't care where we're seeded; we have to win six games." In an interview Monday on ESPN Radio’s "Mike and Mike," Hayes sounded similarly circumspect, having perhaps moved on from the underdog mentality.
"This is the NCAA Tournament; it’s called March Madness for a reason. That’s why there’s upsets, that’s why there’s Cinderella teams, because seedings don’t really matter. … We just knew that we want to win the national championship, just like every other team in the tournament, and in order to do that, you have to beat a great team. Ours just happened to come in the first weekend."
There’s an argument to be made that the selection committee’s low-seeding affront was the best thing that could have happened to Wisconsin – ask famously chip-shouldered Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers about proving the disbelievers wrong – but it feels slightly contrived. This Badgers team is no Cinderella; their senior class has played more NCAA Tournament games, with 15, than any group of players in the sport.
And that class has started playing to its potential at the best possible time. Hayes, who had a quiet and maligned season, has become the impact player the Badgers always hoped he’d be, averaging 17.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in two tourney games; Wisconsin's own point guard Bronson Koenig is making an early case for Most Outstanding Player, averaging 22.5 points and hitting 11 of 23 three-pointers; guard Zak Showalter has contributed his typically stellar defense, made key hustle plays and hit two big three-pointers in the first round win over Virginia Tech; forward Vitto Brown made 3 of 6 threes, scored 10 points and got the game-sealing steal on the final possession against Villanova.
Meanwhile, sophomore forward Ethan Happ has been dependably strong down low, and sophomore guard Khalil Iverson has given the Badgers an athletic lift off the bench. Hayes was asked on ESPN Radio about how the Badgers’ seniors can help the younger players going into their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
"We can try and give that experience that we’ve had, we’ve had the ups and the downs," Hayes said. "We’ve reached the high point – we were five points away from a national championship (in 2015) – and then we can reach back to where we were in the Sweet 16 last year, so my class of guys, we’ve done everything we can do besides hold the trophy. So that’s really our only focus and our biggest source of motivation, is to try and stay zeroed in, knowing that there’s one goal and one goal only that we want to accomplish.
"Obviously we’re playing against some great teams from here on out, it’ll be difficult, but I believe in my guys, I believe in myself and I believe if we stick to our brand of basketball and leave it all out there on the court we have a good chance."
Here’s another reason Wisconsin should avoid its own underdog sentimentality: Its opponent for Friday is as much a Cinderella story-stomper as any in recent years. Florida beat No. 11 Dayton in the Elite Eight in 2014, overpowered No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 in 2013, ended upstart Brigham Young’s run in the Sweet 16 in 2011, knocked off fifth-seeded Butler in the Sweet 16 in 2007 and defeated 11th-seeded George Mason in the Final Four in 2006. On a local level, the Gators beat Marquette in the Sweet 16 in 2012, and routed UW-Milwaukee in the second round in 2006.
The Badgers had a bad stretch that revealed some of their problems and they’ve since improved. They still rely heavily on jump shooting, and they have issues when those shots don’t fall. But Wisconsin is playing much more balanced offensively, and its composure at the end of the Villanova game – it overcame a late seven-point deficit and outscored the Wildcats, 15-5, over the final 5:07, with Hayes and Koenig combining for 12 of those points – demonstrated its poise and experience in big March moments.
Losing five out of seven conference games late in the year is not the optimal way to close out a campaign, but the challenges prepared the Badgers and helped them gain the confidence to win games when things aren’t going well or they’re not favored.
"I think we’ve tried to be humbled by that," Hayes said Monday. "I think I’ve done a good job, and my other seniors, of channeling that sense of urgency knowing that this is our last go-around. So we’re definitely demanding more from ourselves, and in turn we’re demanding more from our teammates, and we’re trying to be better, trying to reach that stride everyone talks about – not really how well you played throughout the year, although you’d like to, but it’s how well and how quickly you can make that stride in the right direction during March.
"I think that we’ve done that, we’ve tried to get in that groove, and as long as we stay with that I think we’ll be pretty good."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.