Wisconsin basketball getting its ‘swagger back’ in Big Ten tournament run


MINNEAPOLIS — On the Monday after Wisconsin returned home from a humbling weekend loss at Rutgers last month — a 22-point shellacking that represented the Scarlet Knights’ largest victory against a ranked opponent ever — Badgers coach Greg Gard didn’t pretend all was well. He acknowledged, as was obvious to anybody willing to watch the on-court product, that what had transpired in recent games sucked.

At the time, Wisconsin was in the midst of its first four-game losing streak in six years, which included blowing an 18-point lead at Nebraska, a loss to a Michigan team so bad it would fire its coach and the rout in Piscataway, N.J. Gard wanted to ensure his players remembered who they were — a team that had recently risen to No. 6 in the AP Top 25 and looked like a legitimate Final Four contender.

But as the losses continued to mount and Wisconsin closed the regular season 3-8 over its last 11 games, it was hard not to think about this season in the past tense. As in, Wisconsin was a dangerous team when it stood 16-4 before it lost its way and seemingly squandered a golden opportunity. The question was: Would the Badgers ever find the form Gard insisted still resided within his players?

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Wisconsin’s slide continues — what it could mean for the postseason

Consider the outcome Friday in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game to be proof of what could be possible again. No. 5 seed Wisconsin overcame an early double-digit deficit, as well as the absence of starting point guard Chucky Hepburn to a knee injury, to beat No. 4 seed Northwestern 70-61 at Target Center. Wisconsin (21-12) advanced to face top-seeded Purdue (29-3) in a semifinal on Saturday.

“I think we don’t even realize how good we can still be sometimes,” Badgers guard Max Klesmit said. “When we’re playing well, I think we can hang with anybody in the country. We’ve proven that to ourselves again over the last two-and-a-half, three weeks here that that’s who we are.”

After Wisconsin annihilated Maryland by 31 points and drained 16 3-pointers in its opening-round tournament game, Gard said he had begun to see the Badgers trend in the right direction over the previous couple of games. Wisconsin demonstrated toughness while playing with better offensive efficiency and defensive execution. Those were the traits Wisconsin needed to show against a Northwestern team headed for the NCAA Tournament, and they’re exactly what the Badgers got.

Wildcats star guard Boo Buie scored 16 of Northwestern’s first 21 points to give his team a 21-10 lead. He did not score during the last 12 minutes of the half with Wisconsin rotating multiple guards on him as the Badgers took a 33-29 lead. Buie, a first-team All-Big Ten performer, finished with 29 points. Wisconsin never surrendered the lead during the second half. The Badgers played with grit, with some players learning less than 30 minutes before tip-off that they would be without Hepburn.

Two years ago, Wisconsin earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament but flamed out in the second round against Iowa State, crumbling after Hepburn injured his left ankle late in the first half. There was no depth behind him and no chance for the Badgers. Wisconsin absolutely will need a healthy Hepburn to help the team make a deep postseason run. But what happened Friday highlighted that this season’s team is different because multiple players are capable of beating an opponent.

Wisconsin has one of the best playmakers on the floor with wing AJ Storr, who scored a career-high 30 points. Center Steven Crowl played with the aggression Gard has tried to help pull out of him and scored 19 points. Freshman guard John Blackwell started in place of Hepburn and helped to defend Buie, as did Klesmit and backup point guard Kamari McGee.

McGee has returned after suffering a foot injury on Jan. 19 against Rutgers that kept him out for more than six weeks. Blackwell also missed a couple of games with an injury. Gard said those players helped to give the Badgers a necessary spark.

“I think we’ve weathered the storm,” Gard said. “You buckle down when things don’t go your way and continue to learn and grow and stay positive and stay aggressive. I think that was the biggest thing. The last two weeks, I think we’ve gotten much more aggressive on both ends of the floor.”

Storr said there wasn’t a particular lightbulb moment for Wisconsin during its rough stretch. Players kept showing up, listening to Gard and putting in the work. And, yes, they reminded themselves of who they were. Now, they are convinced that this is who they are.

“We’re definitely building on something special,” Blackwell said. “I think people are seeing it, that we’re getting our mojo back, we’re getting our swagger back.”

(Photo of Max Klesmit: Matt Krohn / USA Today)





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