What a stunning comeback and heartbreaking defeat. Start with the positives—who shined at Madison Square Garden?
Owen Riese: Nigel Hayes was incredible down the stretch, save for a couple free throws. He sacked up when he needed for those final two, despite the struggles. Zak Showalter also had a very impressive game. His energy and defense was impressive as usual, and the shot he hit to force overtime won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Jon Beidelschies: For the first 19 minutes of the game, Vitto Brown was the best player on the floor for Wisconsin. He led the Badgers with 10 points in the half and his energy and aggressiveness paced the Badgers to their big, early lead. Things fell apart a bit with some bad fouls, including an inexplicable mental lapse at the end of the first half fouling on a KeVaughn Allen three-pointer, but for the second straight tournament game, Vitto was back to being Vitto.
Andrew Rosin: The starting five. All of them. I mean, this was a game where the Badgers got three points off the bench. I’m going to explain it further down the road but suffice it to say that outside of defending Allen, this might have been the best performance from these five all year. Might not even need the qualifier.
What hurt Wisconsin most—free throws, foul trouble, or turnovers?
Owen: Free throws. Plain and simple, they’ve been an area of concern for this team all season long, and it finally caught up with them. Losing by one when you miss five free throws in overtime is a tough pill to swallow.
Jon: Free throws win games. They were the difference in the Virginia Tech game and all the misses allowed the Gators to stay close enough to win it at the end.
Andrew: Obviously, in an overtime with five missed free throws you will have a very good and direct answer. But in a one-point loss, it all counts. If it’s 15 Badger turnovers instead of 16, maybe Showalter’s three gives the Badgers a win and a shot at the Final Four at the buzzer. If Vitto Brown doesn’t get into foul trouble, Khalil Iverson don’t play 11 more minutes than he has in a game since December and maybe, just maybe, that layup turns into a dunk.
Game balls: despite the loss, who earned them? Mine go to Showalter and Hayes.
Owen: Tough to argue with those two. For the sake of variety, I’ll give one to Bronson Koenig. Fighting through injury late in the game, Koenig was the sniper he’s been all year and got the Badgers back into the game when they were down eight with three minutes left.
Jon: Agree—Showalter and Hayes. They both came up huge. Showalter hit the biggest shot of his career on an enormous stage. Hayes was a force. If Chris Chiozza’s shot is half an inch to the left, we are all asking where their performances stand in the Wisconsin history books. We still should.
Andrew: You’ve got to give every member of the starting five a nod. Koenig deserved to be carried off on a shield for fighting through that injury. Showalter kept the Badgers alive on a miracle. Vitto’s first half helped keep Florida from collapsing on Happ, which allowed Happ to have himself one of the quieter 20-plus-point Badger performances on a major stage. And Nigel Hayes was peak Nigel in this one as well. They all warrant mentioning.
How will you remember the 2016-17 Wisconsin Badgers’ men’s basketball team? How will you remember this senior class?
Owen: I think this has been the most successful four-year run in school history. Two Final Fours and two Sweet 16s is absolutely nothing to scoff at. I think this class is also comparable to the class two years ago. While composed a bit differently, this class was a joy to follow on the court, as well as their antics off of the court. They’ve endeared themselves to the nation, and won’t be forgotten. Hayes and Koenig are both, at worst, top-10 Badgers all-time, so it was an incredible ride.
Jon: I agree with everything Owen says above. I will remember Hayes and Koenig’s activism, Showalter’s leadership, and Brown’s hustle. I’m glad this team got a memorable tournament run this year. Had they dropped a first-round game or bowed out meekly against ‘Nova, I think some in the fan base may have put an asterisk on their collective legacy. The ‘Nova win—and even this epic loss—cements them as an historic group.
Andrew: Yeah, I get the sense there’s a consensus that this senior core is a core that we may never see the likes of again. They were a core that, no matter who they faced, you never said to yourself, “Oh, we don’t have a shot.” Granted, they had some weird streaks of losses once they came to the forefront. But despite those times, this was absolutely a special class.
As for 2016-2017, I was frustrated with this team. You all know that. I wasn’t going to go as far as to say them losing to a Virginia Tech would have tarnished the rides before. But they were also flawed. The big men behind Vitto were a net negative, so Vitto just had to ride out his slump. The bench offense was often Iverson dunks and if D’Mitrik Trice was hitting threes. They came together at the end, though. Got people staying after work to watch how Florida ended. Gonna miss them.