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Wisconsin men’s basketball: Badgers host Liberty in second round of NIT

Wisconsin will hope it can get another big performance from Big Steve against the Flames.

It might not be the Big Dance, but UW’s postseason dreams continue in the second round of the NIT with a showdown against the Liberty Flames Sunday morning.

Wisconsin dispatched Bradley 81-62 in the first round game Tuesday, thanks to a standout performance from Steven Crowl.

The junior from Minnesota had a career-high 36 points on an efficient 12-for-16 shooting and added nine rebounds as he dominated Bradley’s big men.

The matchup against Liberty also looks to be a favorable one for Crowl: the Flames are a smaller team with none of the big bruisering centers Crowl got used to facing in Big Ten play.

Liberty, who reached the final of the ASUN conference tournament before falling to Kennesaw State to miss out on an NCAA Tournament berth, are led by Darius McGhee on offense, who has averaged 22.6 points per game and is a good three point shooter.

Against Villanova in Liberty’s first round win, McGhee had 26 points and made five threes. Meanwhile, the Flames held Nova to shooting just 4-for-26 from three.

But with a small team, the Flames struggled against the Wildcats inside. The Flames allowed 36 points in the paint, which could mean good things for the Badgers and Steven Crowl.

Another strong performance by Crowl could help the Badgers win the postseason tournament, but it can also be a positive development for Crowl heading into the next season. Crowl had a lot more mojo in the game against Bradley. If that performance is a harbinger of what’s to come next season, that’s good news for Badger fans.

The other player who shined against Bradley was junior guard Max Klesmit. The Neenah-native had 16 points and two assists, continuing a string of solid scoring performances in the back half of the season. The Wofford-transfer faced an adjustment to Big Ten play in the first half, but started to progress as a scoring threat in the final weeks.

A lot of the discussion of Wisconsin’s NIT adventure is about what it will mean for next season. Sure, the Badgers have a chance to win some postseason hardware. It’s just not anything that fans or players would have been hoping for at the start of the season.

But winning helps build confidence. And scoring 36 points, like Steven Crowl did, certainly helps build confidence too. Last year’s NIT champion, Xavier, was able to turn that win into a third seed in the NCAA Tournament this year and a first round win over Kennesaw State.

But it’s not time for next season to start yet for Wisconsin, who will hope to move on to the Quarterfinals of the NIT with a win over Liberty Sunday. The Badgers welcome the Flames to the Kohl Center at 11:00 a.m. Sunday, with the game being shown on ESPN2.