It’s Big Ten Tournament time, folks!
With Rutgers and Iowa moving on, fans will now have a full day’s worth of games on Thursday, including the Wisconsin Badgers and Maryland Terrapins kicking off the action with an 11 a.m. CT match-up pitting the Nos. 9 and 8 seeds, respectively.
Wisconsin (14–17, 7–11 Big Ten) ended the regular season playing its best basketball, but heading into Madison Square Garden in an attempt to run the table, claim the tournament title, and continue its streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament will be a tall challenge.
Our writers look back at the end of Wisconsin’s regular season, plus what’s ahead for Ethan Happ, Brad Davison, and the Badgers starting on Thursday morning.
What did the last six games of the season, when Wisconsin went 4–2, reveal about this team heading into the Big Ten Tournament?
Drew Hamm: That college athletes take tremendous pride in what they do. The Badgers had nothing to play for, except pride, and they came out every game and played well. Beating Purdue was awesome and not something a lot of teams can say this year. Winning two games on the road during this stretch, even though it was just Northwestern and Illinois, was impressive. Playing MSU tough on Senior Day was sweet. Lastly, it showed how good this team could be next year if Happ comes back. Davison is going to be a star, no matter how many shoulders he has to play with, and Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice will be back and Purdue, MSU, and aOsu should all lose some top talent and ... you get the point. It made me happy that they played so well these last six games and that’s the most important thing. I was happy.
Ryan Mellenthin: One word: resilience. After losing five straight and eight of 10, Wisconsin had little to play for other than a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and pride. Wisconsin has shown up over the last six games and has played its best basketball of the season. The Badgers beat Illinois to end their five-game skid, a top-ranked team in Purdue, their rival Minnesota, and spoiled Senior Night for Northwestern. They also played Michigan State tough in what could have been a preview of things to come in NYC. Players rose to the occasion and got hot at the right time, like Brevin Pritzl, who has been shooting lights out as of late. Happ has been Happ and Davison showed those watching CBS on Sunday that he can be an elite player at the collegiate level.
Kevin O’Connell: The Badgers have been a pleasant surprise during these last six games. It would have been easy to coast to the end of the season after a stretch that saw Greg Gard’s team lose eight out of nine conference games. Instead, this team has played hard every night, notched a massive win over sixth-ranked Purdue and nearly beat second-ranked Michigan State on Sunday. As someone who was dangerously close to pressing the panic button in late January, it has been encouraging to see this young group of Badgers play their best basketball at the end of the season.
Looking at this week’s bracket, how far do you see Wisconsin going and why?
Drew: Well, Wisconsin’s first game is against Maryland (a team it lost to this season) and its potential second game is against Michigan State (a team that it lost to twice this season) so most would think that the Badgers won’t be staying in New York for very long. Those people would be idiots, however. Wisconsin is going to beat Maryland for one reason, and one reason only: Brevin Pritzl. Pritzl was a shell of himself in their regular-season meeting, playing only six minutes and missing both of his shot attempts. That is not the Pritzl that is currently suiting up for the Badgers and his long-range bombing will open up the floor for Happ and Khalil Iverson to operate down low.
Ryan: Warning: Hot Take Alert. I am going to take the ever-positive-slightly-delirious approach and say the Badgers will win the tournament. Now I realize the odds of this happening are stacked against Wisconsin, but hear me out. A big reason for Wisconsin’s downfall this season has been the team’s lack of experience and every player, at the very least, is through its first collegiate regular season of play as of right now. They have all gone through the rigors of a long season and are now in win-or-go-home mode, which should motivate them. While Wisconsin is still missing King and Trice, The Belgian, Andy Van Vliet, has re-emerged from the bench as a player who can pose a threat to the opposition. While it is a smaller sample size, he is shooting 52 percent from three-point land. As I said previously, Happ is Happ and others are coming on strong at the right time.
Kevin: I expect Wisconsin to beat a Maryland team that has been wildly inconsistent this season. The Badgers are playing their best basketball at the right time and should be able to limit turnovers against the Terrapins, who have the second-fewest steals and second-worst turnover margin in the Big Ten. Assuming UW can beat Maryland, a date with Michigan State awaits in round two. Make no mistake, the Spartans are an incredibly difficult matchup, but if Happ can dominate the paint and Pritzl, Aleem Ford, and Davison get hot from deep, anything can happen. I believe it’ll be a one-and-done tournament for the Badgers, but if Gard works his magic and they can somehow pull the upset against Michigan State, a semifinal match-up with Michigan or Nebraska seems winnable.
For Wisconsin to have any chance of advancing deep in the tournament, or *gasp* make it to Saturday or Sunday, what needs to happen?
Drew: I know earlier I called people who thought that Wisconsin wouldn’t be staying long in New York “idiots,” but uh, they aren’t idiots. Beating MSU is too tall of a task for this shorthanded Badgers team. They will play the Spartans tough, but they won’t win. MSU is too talented. What needs to happen for the Badgers to advance to the weekend portion of this tournament is a bad bout of food poisoning from the MSU pregame meal to hit the players right around tip-off. Or, like, an act of God. That would work too.
Ryan: Wisconsin needs to get back to playing Wisconsin basketball. The Badgers committed only four turnovers in its loss to Michigan State and limiting those will be key to making a run. They will also need to avoid falling behind big early in the game. Wisconsin fell behind 8–0 to Michigan State before cashing in on its first points of the game, one they ultimately only lost by five points. As we have seen, Big Ten teams have pounced on Wisconsin and have jumped out to early leads all season, and often these early deficits have been too deep for the Badgers to climb out of. In regard to their players, Davison will be the emotional leader of a team that has appeared to take on his persona recently. Happ needs to be Happ, except for when he is shooting free throws. If he could be Pritzl at that point, that would be helpful...
Kevin: It sounds simple, but the Badgers really need Pritzl to shoot the ball well in this tournament. Davison has stepped up as a consistent secondary scoring option behind Happ, but the Badgers will need significantly more offensive firepower to make a run in this tournament. Wisconsin is 6–0 on the year when Pritzl scores 15+ points, so it is paramount that the redshirt sophomore hits the open looks he is bound to get when the Terrapins and/or Spartans double-team Happ.
Who’s your pick to come out on top in Madison Square Garden this weekend?
Drew: I don’t know, man. I think March Madness is going to be extra mad this year and some crazy team like St. Mary’s or Texas Tech is going to win it all and everyone’s bracket will be 50 percent wrong, so let’s say that Nebraska wins the B1G Tourney this year. Yeah, that seems appropriately crazy.
Ryan: I know I am crazy, but I’m throwing out positive vibes here and going with Wisconsin.
Kevin: I like Purdue to win this tournament. Michigan State is a juggernaut and the most talented team in the conference, but I really believe Wisconsin will push the Spartans to the edge. Even if MSU wins, I’m uncertain the Spartans can beat Michigan in the semi-final game. Ohio State has the conference’s best player in Keita Bates-Diop, but the Buckeyes will likely face Penn State in the quarterfinals, a team that has beaten them twice this year. I like Purdue’s draw in this bracket and despite losing three straight games earlier this month, the Boilermakers righted the ship and finished the Big Ten season with three straight victories. In the end, Purdue’s duo of Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards (not related) along with center Isaac Haas, aka The Mountain, will prove to be too much for Michigan in the tournament final at MSG.