After a maybe-not-so-improbable-upset-win over Villanova on Saturday, the Badgers are just one of 16 teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament. Here are some reasons the Badgers could cut down the nets in Phoenix in April.
They have been winning without Ethan Happ (but Ethan, they need you the rest of the way).
Ethan Happ had major foul trouble in both of the first-weekend games, and finished with four fouls in each game. Happ missed significant time in the first half because he picked up two early fouls – in each game.
He only took eight shots and went 5/8 in both games. But the Badgers need him on the floor and they need him taking more shots. Happ is an All-American, and to win it all the Badgers may need one, or two, of those games where he is just flat out unstoppable.
I’m talking the games like against Minnesota in Minneapolis when he had 28 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and five blocks.
Or, like against Rutgers, when he had 32 points, six boards, four steals, three assists and two blocks.
By the way, that performance against Rutgers took place in New York City, New York, in an arena that you may have heard of, called Madison Square Garden.
The Badgers’ next possible two games (two, of course, if they win on Friday night) will be taking place in New York City, New York, and those games will be played in MSG.
Wisconsin’s senior class is a combined 15-3 in the NCAA Tournament. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig were key members of two teams that made it to the Final Four as freshman and sophomores.
The only team in the current field that can rival Wisconsin is North Carolina, who was last year’s runner-up. But Villanova won that National Title game over the Tar Heels and the Badgers just knocked them out.
As juniors when they led the way, the class reached the Sweet 16 as a seven seed, before getting knocked out by Notre Dame. Even in that defeat, the Badgers were a few plays away from reaching the Elite Eight for the third straight season. Wisconsin led by a score of 56-53 with under 30 seconds left after Vitto Brown drilled a three to give the Badgers a lead.
After that, things didn’t go the Badgers way as they turned the ball over, gave up an 8-0 run, and lost 61-56.
In all reality, when Koenig threw that lazy pass across the court on Saturday against Villanova to Hayes that didn’t get there, my mind immediately went back to the late game miscues against Notre Dame. Villanova had a chance to take the lead with under 40 seconds left with free throws. Luckily for the Badgers, Donte DiVincenzo missed one, leaving the game tied.
But maybe after some experience in the same situation as things started falling apart on Saturday, even well before Koenig’s pass when they were down 57-50, they did not panic because these Badgers have been here before. Plenty of times, actually. The Wisconsin resilience was astounding.
I’m not going to harp on this too much because we all know. Everyone should know. But Bronson Koenig is ice cold. It’s incredible, really.
I could go through all the moments, but I’m not going to. There’s too many and we all know them already. I won’t mention Koenig’s game-tying and winning threes against Xavier last year. I won’t mention about how we had a personal 10-0 run against Michigan at the Kohl Center to help propel the Badgers over the Wolverines earlier this season. I won’t mention his clutch three against Minnesota in overtime this year.
But against Villanova, he did it again.
Something that I noticed and really struck me is how he just knows. Right before his falling away three on the left wing, the Badgers inbounded the ball.
They inbounded the ball because Nigel Hayes could not quite get the ball to a wide open Koenig in the corner, and the ball was knocked out of bounds by a Nova defender as Koenig was standing alone.
Koenig was so open that he was visibly frustrated when the ball was bounced out of bounds. He knew he was going to take that shot. Hell, he probably knew he was going to make the shot. He threw his arms around in frustration and yelled at himself. Perhaps he knew it would possibly be his best look the rest of the game.
But after the inbounds, Koenig turned and fired that falling-away-three without hesitation. I assume he knew he was going to shoot it as soon as he saw the ball get passed to him. Some people are born with an innate ability to shoot the basketball and shoot it even better under pressure, and Bronson Koenig is one of those special people. It’s like an instinct.
I’m seven paragraphs into this section and haven’t even talked about the guy that actually hit THE shot to send the Badgers to their fourth straight Sweet 16: Nigel Hayes. Hayes also hit a three in overtime against Nebraska to give the Badgers a hard-earned W in Lincoln this year.
If a game comes down to the wire as they often do during March, Badger fans can be more comfortable than just about any other fan base the rest of the way with more than one option at the end of the game.
Emergence of role players
Last year, Vitto Brown became one of the more important players on the team, as he shot 40 percent from deep.
This year, Brown struggled with injuries and his shot, as that number dipped to 30 percent.
He scored 10 points against Nova, his first double-digit scoring game in 11 games since February 12th. He went 3/6 from the three-point line, as he was the one to spark the Badgers in the beginning of the game and give them the confidence early on.
Brown also made the key defensive stop at the end of the game as he helped off of Kris Jenkins onto Josh Hart and ripped the ball away, sealing the Badgers victory.
Brown has received a lot of criticism from Badger fans, and rightfully so, but he also deserves credit when it’s due. When Vitto stretches the floor and hits shots, Wisconsin’s offense is completely different.
Additionally, Khalil Iverson has been a godsend for the Badgers over tournament play. He returned to the team after missing the final two games of the Big Ten Tournament to do a tragic death in the family.
In the first round game against Virginia Tech, Iverson had one of his best games of his career. He scored 11 points on 7/10 shooting from the free throw line, grabbed seven boards, and even dished three assists.
More so, his athleticism was on display. Wisconsin doesn’t really have any elite athletes, but Iverson certainly is one. His only two field goals were rim-rocking dunks, but more importantly, Iverson was able to sky higher than anyone else to grab a few important boards.
Against ‘Nova, the scoring wasn’t there, but the athleticism was there again as he grabbed a few tough rebounds to steal Badger possessions.
Gard has certainly trusted him during the first two rounds, as he played more than 20 minutes in each. Iverson averages less than 15 minutes a game and he didn’t play more than 16 minutes in a single game since he played 22 minutes at Michigan on February 16th, and that was probably only because Koenig was out with an injury.
I’m not saying Brown and Iverson are game changers, but they are difference makers for the Badgers. Vitto’s shooting ability for a big man and Khalil’s athleticism are something that you cannot really find on the Badger’s roster elsewhere. If one of the two can be Wisconsin’s third or fourth best players in the upcoming rounds, that fares well for the Badgers.