Zak Showalter shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
Nearly a year has passed, but Showalter still has trouble coming to grips with how last season started for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
“It was the most out of body experience,” he said. “It all happened so fast.”
A Friday night that began with Showalter and his teammates watching a Final Four banner being raised at the Kohl Center ended with the Badgers, ranked No. 17 at the time and a 25-point favorite, in shock after a 69-67 loss to Western Illinois.
It turned out to be one of the biggest upsets of the season in college basketball. Western Illinois finished the season 10-17 overall and at the bottom of the Summit League standings with a 3-13 mark.
The Leathernecks won their first five games before their season took a sharp turn for the worse. Fifteen days after beating the Badgers, Western Illinois lost by 30 points at Creighton. Nine days after that, it fell by 34 points at Iowa.
“They saved it all for that game against us,” UW associate head coach Lamont Paris said. “It was unbelievable.”
The Badgers, meanwhile, were a team in transition, a night-and-day difference from the outfit that will start the 2016-17 season. Ninth-ranked UW opens vs. Central Arkansas tonight at the Kohl Center.
When last season officially began 364 days ago, the coach, Bo Ryan, was a man who would have preferred to have been retired. His top lieutenant, Greg Gard, was in a fog while mourning the loss of his father, who had died on Oct. 30.
On the court, the Badgers were a mostly inexperienced team trying to replace five key players from a national runner-up squad.
Holdovers Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, complementary pieces during their first two seasons, were now on the top of opponents’ scouting reports in addition to stepping into leadership roles. Showalter and forward Vitto Brown were making their first career starts vs. Western Illinois. The fifth starter, Ethan Happ, was making his collegiate debut, as were key reserves such as Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas.
“I just think we weren’t very good at that point in time,” Gard said this week. “We were inexperienced, we weren’t all on the same page, we were trying to find our way. We were very inconsistent. …
“Looking back, schematically, we were kind of distorted. We took bad shots, we didn’t guard very well at key times.
“It just had a distorted feel to it altogether. There wasn’t synergy on either end of the court.”
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It showed against the Leathernecks, who shot 54 percent from the field, went 7 of 9 from 3-point range and outscored the Badgers 30-20 in the paint.
UW watched a seven-point halftime lead disappear in part because it missed 20 of its first 24 shots from the field in the second half. A late run gave the Badgers a chance to win the game, but two free throws by Western Illinois’ Garret Covington with 10.2 seconds left broke a 67-all tie and Koenig missed a jumper in the closing seconds.
“Raising the banner and then losing that game,” Koenig said, “was a pretty hard feeling.”
Added Hayes, who finished with 17 points but was held scoreless in the second half: “It just sums up the first half of that season, the inexperience that we had, new guys out there, people coming into their own, finding themselves. They didn’t find themselves that game. People were soul searching, I guess you could say. We don’t plan on going through any of those type of lulls this year. We have everyone coming back, everyone’s a year better, a year more mature, a year more experienced. Hopefully, we’ll come out and take care of business.”
UW returns all five starters and all but six points and 20 minutes played from a team that rallied from a 9-9 start to the season to finish with 22 wins and a trip to the Sweet 16.
Central Arkansas, meanwhile, is coming off a season in which it went 7-21 overall and 1-9 outside Southland Conference play. The Bears have posted 10 consecutive losing seasons, with an overall winning percentage of .294, since moving to the NCAA Division I level in 2006.
But if the Badgers learned anything in last year’s opener, it was this: There’s no such thing as an automatic win.
“You’ve got to know early on that teams that don’t get to play these big games all the time are going to throw their best game at you, so you’ve just got to be ready,” Showalter said. “I think we’ll be ready to go this year.”
Three make Naismith list
UW was one of four programs nationally to place three players on the Naismith Trophy Preseason Watch List.
Happ, Hayes and Koenig were among 50 players on the list for an award given to the nation’s top player. The mid-season list of 30 will be announced on Feb. 9.
Duke, Kansas and Kentucky were the other schools with three players on the list.
Other Big Ten players included Illinois senior forward Malcolm Hill; Iowa senior swingman Peter Jok; Indiana junior guard James Blackmon Jr. and sophomore center Thomas Bryant; Maryland junior point guard Melo Trimble; Michigan State freshman swingman Miles Bridges; and Purdue sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan.