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Wisconsin basketball: Badgers surging with confidence during key stretch run

What does nine wins in 10 games, including four over ranked opponents, and a group not at all lacking in personality get you? A team brimming with confidence. Just ask the Badgers.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The date was Jan. 12. With temperatures lingering just above five degrees in Evanston, Ill., it was unpleasantly frigid to be walking around the Northwestern University campus.

The most unpleasant place to be on campus, however, was inside the confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the Wisconsin Badgers seemed to have hit a rock bottom in a season where it had been thought that they already hit rock bottom at least twice before.

"That was a really tough one," guard Jordan Hill said. "I think a lot of us were upset about the way we played and showed up. Not necessarily whether shots went in or not, but just kind of showing our heart on the floor. We didn't do that."

Wisconsin's streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances wasn't even the largest question after the Badgers dropped to 1-4 in Big Ten play and 9-9 overall in the stale 70-65 loss to the Wildcats that night. Walking out of Welsh-Ryan arena, the question that was being asked was, "Will this team make even make the NIT?"

Oh the times, they were a-changing.

Little could the nation have predicted the run that the Badgers were about to erupt upon under interim head coach Greg Gard. The schedule got no better for the Big Ten cellar-dwellers at the time with No. 4 Michigan State coming to the Kohl Center on January 17.

As it would become, Wisconsin's loss at Northwestern was the turning point in the season.

"I think sometimes a loss like the Northwestern one can really help your focus and bring you guys closer as a team," forward Aaron Moesch said.

"That's kind of when we became a closer team."

"That's kind of when we became a closer team."

It was at the behest of their leader, forward Nigel Hayes, that the Badgers became that closer team. According to reporters at the game, Hayes called on his teammates to "do some soul-searching" after the loss.

His teammates promptly responded. Behind huge performances from Hayes and co-leader Bronson Koenig and a game-winning layup by Ethan Happ, the Badgers knocked off the Spartans at home.

That win prompted a seven-game winning streak that included a win over No. 19 Indiana at home and avenging an earlier loss against No. 2 Maryland on the road. After their latest trick, a 67-59 victory at No. 8 Iowa, Wisconsin finds itself tied for fourth place in the Big Ten heading into Sunday's match up with Michigan.

During their streak, the Badgers have won in a variety of ways. They beat the Spartans through offensive efficiency and free-throw shooting. Hayes, Happ, Koenig and Brown have all led the charge on different nights. On multiple occasions, the other team has simply been shot out of the gym. Against Iowa, it was defense and bench production.

"Our ability to win games in a bunch of different ways, I think that adds to (the notion that) we're a dynamic team," Moesch said. "Coming off the bench, we've got a lot of scorers and you never know who's going to play well."

With that type of success, it's no surprise to see Wisconsin brimming with confidence. And there is no better time for that than heading into the March gauntlet.

"Our confidence is pretty high," Hill said. "It's constantly growing the more we do what we're supposed to do. I think it's just going to better and better."

The joy with which the Badgers are playing with is evident, as well. After true freshman forward Khalil Iverson's highlight windmill dunk against Iowa, the Wisconsin bench reacted as if they had just won the lottery. Hayes is cracking jokes at forward Vitto Brown's expense at practices. Press conferences, while not at the same level of sheer humor as last season's Final Four run, have turned into their own version of comedy shows. Players compete in rock-paper-scissors underneath the media room dais. Hayes talks about his love of syrup and why electric indigo is his favorite color (turns out he didn't even know what it looked like).

Success on the court has led to the Badgers' exuberance. Or is it the other way around?

Either way, the result is clear. To reference the analogy Gard would likely use: the Badgers are all in the boat, oars in hand and rowing in the same direction.

Now, after dethroning each of the four teams tied with or above them in the Big Ten standings, Wisconsin is out to, once again, make 'em believe.

"From here on out, I feel like we have a chance to win every game," Moesch said.

Every game, Aaron? So are you saying you think you can beat anyone?

"Oh yeah," Moesch said. "We've gone out and proven that, pretty much. We've beaten some good teams: Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland."

Moesch isn't alone in that belief. Hill agrees, adding that the consensus in the Badgers locker room is that they can compete with any opponent.

"I have no doubt in my mind," Hill said of being able to defeat any team. "As long as we do what we're supposed to do and stick to our rules and follow what Coach Gard has to say, we can beat anybody in the country."

At that point in the interview, a group of Wisconsin women's basketball players walked past in the hallway, making just enough noise to draw the ire of Hill and the other Badgers talking with reporters.

"Hey! C'mon now, go to practice," Hill shouted.

The slight disruption in Hill's interview signified something else, though: it was one of the few things that has disrupted Wisconsin since that frosty evening in Evanston.