Let’s face it, fans of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team were a bit spoiled there for a year or two…or 19. From 1999 to 2017, they crafted a consecutive tournament appearance streak that makes storied programs such as Indiana, Kentucky and UCLA green with envy. Additionally, with the exception of the back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015, zero of the success can be attributed to a roster full of NBA prospects or an exciting, up-tempo style of play. Instead, it was largely done with mid-level recruits who fit their system of ball-security, good defense without fouling, crisp ball movement, and using up the shot clock. Exhilarating, we know.
However, as all good things eventually do, that streak came to an end in 2018. After losing four senior starters, dealing with a few key injuries, and relying heavily on three true freshmen, the Badger magic carpet ride (Badg-ic Carpet Ride?) was over. So the story of the 2018-2019 season has mainly read as a redemption story, showing the world that last year was a fluke and that the program’s rightful place is in the field of 64, or 68, or however many teams are allowed in this thing now. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the comeback tale, here are some things you should know before the 5-seed Badgers take on the Oregon Ducks on Friday, March 22.
Who got them here
The success the Badgers have enjoyed this season is largely due to their return to what worked for them before big names like Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Bronson Koenig showed up. However, as traditionally “Wisconsin” as this year’s roster is, their star player is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent Cardinal and White memory. Ethan Happ is the Badgers’ preseason All-American, senior center who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. However, unlike any notable UW bigs of the recent past, nearly all of his points come within 10 feet of the basket. If the 6’10” Happ gets the ball anywhere near the hoop, it’ll likely lead to points. His footwork, ball-handling, post moves, and ability to finish with either hand make him a nightmare for opposing big men to guard, and if they try double-teaming him, he will almost certainly find an open man. Despite his inability to hit free throws or shoot from anywhere outside of the paint, Happ is unquestionably the single most important player on this team.
As important as Ethan Happ is to the success of the Badgers, however, no competitive basketball game has ever been won by one player, with the possible exception of Teen Wolf. Fortunately for Happ, the team around him is constructed of stock UW basketball characters that are just good enough to potentially make some noise in the coming weeks.
D’Mitrik Trice is this year’s “good, but not yet great” point guard. He has all of the tools to be one of the best in the country, but has yet to maintain any kind of consistency. Brad Davison is the scrappy, hard-nosed, “lunch pail” guy that other teams, their fans, and even the media absolutely love to hate.
Khalil Iverson, at 6’5″, plays the “too strong to be a guard and too short to be a forward” role perfectly. He’s not much of a shooter, but his sheer athleticism makes him an invaluable defender and allows him to do things on offense that the average human just cannot do. Nate Reuvers, a 6’11” sophomore forward, fills the “promising, young, big guy from Minnesota” role very well. This season, he leads the team in blocks at nearly two a game and is right on schedule to take a huge leap his junior year like so many Badger bigs before him. Throw in a few other roles off the bench like “the shooter who occasionally dunks” in Brevin Pritzl, the “big recruit waiting for his chance” in Kobe King, the “tall guy who shoots” in Aleem Ford, and the “big guy who comes in when the starters are in foul trouble” in Charles Thomas IV, and you’ve got all the makings of a classic Wisconsin basketball team.
How they got here
The season got off to the kind of start the Badger faithful have grown accustomed to. They made quick work of the Coppin States and Houston Baptists of the world, recorded solid wins against power conference foes such as Xavier, Stanford, Oklahoma, and North Carolina State, and dropped close ones to 4th-ranked Virginia in the championship of the Bad Boy Mowers Battle For Atlantis (yes, that’s really the tournament’s name) and at Marquette in overtime at our beloved Fiserv Forum.
Since the Marquette game, they have gone 14-7 with noteworthy wins against 2nd-ranked Michigan, 21st-ranked Maryland, and a blowout senior night win against Iowa, as well as cringe-worthy losses at home to Minnesota and to Indiana in Bloomington. They have been right in the mix at the end of nearly all of their losses, but woeful execution and missed free throws in crunch time most often did the team in. Despite a few rocky stretches, they still finished the regular season at a very solid 14-6 in the Big Ten, 22-7 overall, and nailed down the 4-seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
Wisconsin’s first Big Ten Tournament game was a quarterfinal matchup with Nebraska, who had played both of the previous two days with only seven players. Bucky could only manage a 66-62 win, even thought the Cornhuskers were down to just six players. In the semifinals, Wisconsin faced Michigan State, whom they’d encountered nine times in previous Big Ten Tournaments. Early on, it was clear that the 6th ranked Spartans were just a better team, leading by as much as 17 at one point. The Badgers made it interesting midway through the second half, cutting the lead to just six. In the end, though, the quality and depth of Michigan State, combined with the fact that UW shot two-of-19 from three-point range (that’s 10.5 percent for you math fans out there), spelled the end of Wisconsin’s Big Ten Tournament.
What to expect
After such a dismal Big Ten Tournament performance, what can we expect from the Badgers when they begin their NCAA tournament journey? Looking at their region, which includes the likes of Virginia, Tennessee, Purdue, and Kansas State, it’s totally plausible that they win several exciting games, make it all the way to the championship game and avenge their 2015 defeat to Duke by crushing the Blue Devils by 20. Or they could lose their first game to a tough Oregon team who’s won eight straight games, including the Pac 12 Tournament Championship. The maddening inconsistency of this team makes it virtually impossible to predict anything they do. They’ll definitely be wearing red and white uniforms and they’ll definitely be playing basketball, but beyond that, your guess is as good as ours. Regardless of how they do this year, the most important thing is that the redemption story is complete and the University of Wisconsin is back in the Big Dance, where they belong. Here’s to the start of a new streak.
Wisconsin (5) takes on Oregon (12) at 3:30 p.m. CST on Friday, March 22. The game will be televised on TBS.