When the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team opened the 2004 NCAA tournament in Milwaukee, Josh Gasser was a 12-year-old growing up in Port Washington, wishing he was at the Bradley Center to cheer on the Badgers.
“At that point in time,” Gasser said Sunday, “I was just trying to imagine myself playing there, and I obviously never thought that was going to happen.”
Given that backdrop, one can imagine how pleased Gasser was to find out UW was granted its wish of staying close to home to open this year’s event. The Badgers (26-7), making their 16th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, are a No. 2 seed in the West region and will open play at 11:40 a.m. Thursday against American (20-12), a No. 15 seed, at the Bradley Center.
Arizona is the top seed in the West, with third-seeded Creighton looming as a potential Sweet 16 matchup for the Badgers in Anaheim, Calif., if they can get past American in the opener and either Oregon or BYU in the round of 32.
The Badgers’ previous trip to Milwaukee for the NCAA tournament ended on a sour note. UW, issued a No. 6 seed despite winning the Big Ten Conference tournament and being No. 12 in the Ratings Percentage Index, beat Richmond 76-64 in the first round, using a 34-8 run to overcome a 13-point, second-half deficit.
But the Badgers’ season ended with a 59-55 loss to Pittsburgh, the No. 3 seed. UW coach Bo Ryan later called it an “outright injustice” that the Badgers were seeded so low.
There was nothing to complain about this time after UW was rewarded with the No. 8 overall seed in the tournament.
The Badgers are the only team among the top eight overall seeds without a league championship on its resume — they finished in a tie for second place in the Big Ten during the regular season and lost in the tournament semifinal to eventual champion Michigan State — but Ryan’s team produced a 17-6 record against teams in the top 100 of the RPI. Eight of those victories came away from home.
“If you look at the body of work, which they always talk about,” Ryan said, “I think it was very deserved.”
American, a private school with 7,212 undergraduates located in Washington, D.C., is making its third trip to the NCAA tournament. It lost in the first round in 2008 and 2009.
The Eagles were 10-20 last season and were picked ninth out of 10 teams in the Patriot League preseason poll this season.
But Mike Brennan, a former Georgetown assistant who replaced Jeff Jones as coach, led American to a second-place finish in the Patriot during the regular season, and the visiting Eagles beat top-seeded Boston University 55-36 in the tournament final last Wednesday.
“It’s a great accomplishment for our guys,” Brennan said. “I’m glad we won the championship on Wednesday and had a few days to let it sink in before we knew who we were playing. Our guys have had a chance to enjoy it, so now it’s just getting back to work and preparing for Wisconsin.”
When asked about playing UW, Brennan said: “I knew we’d have a tough matchup. I have a lot of respect for coach Ryan, and his team is always very disciplined at both ends of the floor.”
The Eagles have four players averaging in double figures, led by sophomore guard Jesse Reed at 14.0 points per game. Senior Tony Wroblicky, a 6-foot-10 center, was named the Patriot’s defensive player of the year after blocking 61 shots, giving him a program-record 151 for his career.
Brennan was a four-year starter at Princeton under legendary coach Pete Carril, so it’s not surprising the Eagles run Carril’s famous “Princeton offense” that features constant motion and backdoor cuts.
“They run a lot of stuff that’s tough to guard,” Ryan said.
For Gasser, this NCAA tournament will be extra special because he was forced to watch from the sidelines last season while recovering from a knee injury that wiped out his entire season. UW, a No. 5 seed, exited early with a 57-46 loss to Mississippi, only the second time in Ryan’s first 12 seasons the Badgers failed to make it past their first game.
“This time last year was definitely the hardest time for me,” Gasser said. “Obviously, the couple weeks after the injury were tough, but I think the hardest part was watching our guys compete in championship-type moments and not being able to help at all.
“So now, to be in this moment, it’s all about taking advantage of that and just trying to have some fun with it.”
As much as they were happy to be rewarded with a trip to Milwaukee, the Badgers understand it doesn’t guarantee them anything.
“It’s good to be close to home,” UW senior guard Ben Brust said. “But we’ve got to show up when the ball is tipped, because everyone is going to bring it in March.”