For the first time since 2000, the Badgers find themselves playing a Big Ten tournament game prior to the quarterfinals, as they face Nebraska on Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Under Bo Ryan, Wisconsin was consistently one of the conference's best teams, earning a top-four seed in this tournament for 14 consecutive seasons and winning it last year. Ryan, of course, is gone, having stepped down unexpectedly (and possibly amid dubious circumstances) in December. He was replaced on an interim basis by assistant Greg Gard, who, earlier this week, was officially named the program’s permanent head coach.
Gard’s tenure started inauspiciously, with his team losing four of its first five Big Ten games. Following a Jan. 12 defeat at Northwestern that dropped Wisconsin’s overall record to 9-9 – after which junior forward Nigel Hayes publicly called out his struggling teammates – the Badgers won seven straight games, including victories over then-No. 4 Michigan State, No. 19 Indiana and No. 2 Maryland. Since taking over, Gard has made some stylistic tweaks, expanded the Badgers’ rotation and emphasized the frontcourt of Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown as supplementary scorers.
After a Feb. 18 loss at Michigan State, Wisconsin bounced back again to win its next four games, before dropping the regular-season finale at No. 15 Purdue. Depending on how you look at it, Wisconsin, winners of 11 of their last 13 games but a loser in the latest one, is coming off seven weeks of positive momentum or a very recent setback. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way; as Gard has said, every team enters the lose-and-go-home tournament at 0-0 and just trying to advance.
For the sixth-seeded Badgers (20-11, 12-6), the first step in advancing is to beat the No. 11 seed Cornhuskers (15-17, 6-12), whom they knocked off Feb. 10 in Madison by a score of 72-61. Shavon Shields, a second-team All-Big Ten forward, missed that game because of a concussion, which forced Nebraska to play more zone defense and allowed Wisconsin to make 11 of 18 three-pointers (61.1 percent). Shields, who averaged 16.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in his senior season, scored 20 in the Huskers’ win over Rutgers on Wednesday and will provide a boost on both ends of the floor against Wisconsin.
Earlier this week, Hayes, who led the Badgers in scoring at 16.5 points per game, was named to the All-Big Ten First Team. Happ, who averaged 11.9 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game, was selected as the conference’s Freshman of the Year. Wisconsin will need Happ to have a better night than he had the last time against Nebraska, when he was held without a field goal and had just two points and three boards.
If the Badgers win, they’ll play third-seeded Maryland, a highly talented but sometimes undisciplined team they nearly upset at home on Jan. 9 and then beat handily on the road a month ago.
Many bracketologists currently project Wisconsin, ranked No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, as between a sixth and an eighth seed for the NCAA tournament. While it’s obviously dependent on how the Badgers do in the conference tournament, barring an opening-round loss or a run to the championship, the seeding probably won’t change much.
Wisconsin’s resume includes three victories over top-10 teams, including a pair of road wins, the No. 30 RPI (.5931) and an impressive strength of schedule that’s ranked third in the nation.
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.