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Wisconsin meets world: March Madness inexperience not rattling Badgers

Wisconsin has been forced to mature and learn on the fly all season long. A group without much NCAA tournament experience, the Badgers will have another opportunity to grow once this year's Big Dance gets underway.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON -- Ethan Happ spent the Wisconsin Badgers' run to the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis on the team, but watched all of the action from the bench.

Using his true freshman season to redshirt and develop behind National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, Happ spent more time soaking up all that the Final Four had to offer than he did on the court.

"There was a lot less pressure, I guess," Happ said. "I was just kind of there eating cookies, doing homework and stuff like that, so there wasn't too much pressure on me."

From eating baked goods one year ago to now battling for that One Shining Moment, Happ's first NCAA tournament will surely be no cakewalk.

And when Happ and the No. 7 Badgers tip off against No. 10 Pittsburgh at 5:50 p.m. Friday in St. Louis, he won't be the only member of his team getting his first March Madness go-around.

The Badgers feature eight freshmen on their roster, tied for the most in all of college basketball. Among those, guard Khalil Iverson and forwards Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas come off the bench to play significant minutes. Adding to the lack of tournament experience in the main rotation is redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill, who played two minutes in a 40-point, second-round win over American in 2014.

While forward Nigel Hayes and guard Bronson Koenig started on last season's national champion runner-up and guard Zak Showalter and forward Vitto Brown saw limited action as role players, no other players (aside from Hill's two minutes) have any tournament experience.

But does experience carry very much weight come March? For the Badgers, that isn't just a yes-or-no-question.

"It's important as long as you use it to your advantage," Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. "Obviously, we've got four guys that have been in that position before primarily with Hayes and Koenig and somewhat with Vitto and with Showalter."

While four Badgers have played in the NCAA tournament before, only Hayes and Koenig have, in reality, seen significant action. Showalter averaged under seven minutes per game, though his production was a spark in wins over Oregon and North Carolina, while Brown only played five minutes across three games.

Gard and Wisconsin don't plan to emphasize the experience card very much, but they noted that it is deserving of a mention.

"I try not to make too big a deal of it, not make it bigger than what it is," Gard said.

Hayes, the vocal leader of the team, plans to address the younger members of the team at some point before Wisconsin takes the floor against Pittsburgh.

"I have to make sure that I talk to the guys and make sure that they know what's expected of them, the level of play that will be picked up," Hayes said. "It's even more knowing that the season is on the line and you could go home until the next year or you could continue to play on in the tournament.

"It's on our shoulders"

"So they need to understand that. And then the other guys, it's on our shoulders -- the leaders, especially Bronson and myself -- to make sure we relay that message to them."

What might that message be?

"They went deep the last two years, so they'll be able to coach us up a little bit and act like it's just another game for as many games as we play."

Wisconsin's youth was evident in its 9-9 start to the season and 1-4 record to open Big Ten play. Spacing was lacking on offense, poor communication and fundamentals led to defensive lapses and the Badgers simply could not close out close games—including those against lesser opponents. Even with that, Gard still never allowed his team to use inexperience as an excuse.

But when Wisconsin won 11 out of 12 games, it surely no longer looked like the same team. The gauntlet Big Ten schedule forced the young Badgers to grow up, and they responded.

Now the Big Dance will prove to be another test for Happ and company.

Although last season, the latter of Wisconsin's consecutive Final Four runs, was undoubtedly a thrill for Happ, repeating that in the upcoming weeks would be even better.

"I had to be a good cheerleader for the teammates," Happ said of 2015. "That was a lot of fun, but I feel like this would be more fun if we make a deep run."