This weekend, the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers will face the No. 4 seeded Florida Gators in the East Regional semi-final at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of sports arenas.
This Sweet 16 appearance, the Badgers’ nation-leading fourth in a row, is a pretty huge deal in college basketball, for both college sports fans and athletes.
When senior star forward Nigel Hayes was asked what he liked most about this upcoming matchup with the Gators, who also happen to be the first team Hayes ever played against at the Kohl Center in Madison, Hayes’ answer was simple.
“Just another opportunity to play.”
And although no team in Big Ten history has been to more consecutive Sweet 16’s than this group of Wisconsin seniors, the current Badgers unit remains focused, but also relaxed, as senior Zak Showalter is enjoying the amazing moment with his best friends.
“I’m excited, to not be having another Spring Break, for the fourth year in a row,” Showalter said. “To be playing at this time of the year is exciting, and to spend the week with these guys in New York, it’ll be a good week. I’m looking forward to it.”
Showalter, along with Wisconsin fans all over the country, are all looking forward to Friday night in New York City.
As fellow senior Vitto Brown knows, the team has as good of a shot as any to advance in the national phenomenon known as March Madness, but it hasn’t all been easy for the University of Wisconsin Class of 2017.
“This senior class has been through everything there is to go through, in terms of a basketball career,” Brown said Monday. “We’ve all had our highs and lows, some higher, some lower. I think we’re a really multi-faceted group, who has as much experience as you can possibly have.”
Since losing the famed 2014-2015 Wisconsin Final Four star players with the likes of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, the current senior class has been under a constant microscope, as Hayes described on the Rich Eisen podcast.
“People said that we all just had a court side seat to watch them (at the Final Four), like we weren’t actually a part of it,” Hayes said.
The 2015-2016 Wisconsin Badgers, with the same group of starters as this season, had a roller coaster of a year. The team underwent a mid-season coaching change, started off the season hovering around .500, and went on to make the Sweet Sixteen, losing a close game to Notre Dame that many feel Wisconsin threw away in the closing moments.
Coach Gard and his players know a big part of that tough loss was turnovers, as Showalter and his teammates have been focused on that issue all year.
“I think taking care of the ball is one thing we’ve really addressed, taking care of the little things and not putting ourselves in that position,” Showalter said.
With heartbreak comes determination, and senior Bronson Koenig and the Badgers look to turn that negative feeling from last season, into more success this March.
“Obviously being there helps, and knowing what it takes to get there,” Koenig said.
“We’ve talked about the legacy we want to leave, and stuff like that.”
“Legacy” is a very commonly used word when referring to this group of Wisconsin seniors. They have certainly had another up and down second half of the season, but are coming off an impressive win against the top-seeded team in the whole tournament, the Villanova Wildcats.
Koenig’s classmates – Showalter, Hayes and Brown – relish the opportunity to keep playing, but the senior point guard from LaCrosse has not forgotten the ultimate team goals.
“We’ve accomplished so much already,” Koenig explained, “but getting to the Final Four is a goal that we’ve talked about since last season, so it would be a really cool thing if we could do that.”
Wisconsin has won two games so far this tournament, and would need to win just two more to reach the promised land of Phoenix, Arizona, the host of this year’s Final Four.
Their unbelievable journey continues Friday night against the Florida Gators, where the game is set to tip off at 8:59 p.m. CT in the Big Apple.