Based on his reaction earlier this week when told March was only a few hours away, it was clear Brad Davison hadn’t paid too much attention to the calendar.
“Wow,” Davison, a sophomore guard for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, said following practice Thursday. “That’s right.”
For weeks, Davison has been talking about how every game — from ugly wins to heartbreaking defeats — would help prepare UW for the madness that is March. Now, it’s here, and the Badgers officially have reached the stretch run of a long season.
If ever a sense of urgency needs to kick in for No. 19 UW (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten), which hosts surging Penn State (12-16, 5-12) Saturday at the Kohl Center, it’s now.
“It has to,” Davison said. “When you look at the calendar, we only have three Big Ten games left, two home games left with the seniors, one more road game, the clock’s definitely ticking.”
Later, Davison pointed out how much has changed in a span of 365 days. UW’s 2017-18 season, a 15-18 campaign in which the Badgers failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years, ended on March 2 with a 63-60 loss to Michigan State in a quarterfinal of the Big Ten tournament.
This season, the Badgers are safely in the NCAA tournament no matter what happens from here on out. The next two weeks will determine UW’s seed in the bracket.
“Last year at this point, we were just playing for pride,” Davison said. “Now, we’ve got everything in front of us. Most of our goals are still on the table.”
But not all of them.
UW was eliminated from the Big Ten title race Thursday night when Michigan beat Nebraska. It would have taken absolute chaos over the final nine days of the regular season for UW to earn a share of the championship and, in the end, the Badgers were left with regrets and have only themselves to blame.
Home losses to Minnesota and Purdue early in Big Ten play left UW in a hole. Another home defeat against Michigan State on Feb. 12 made that climb almost impossible, and a 75-73 double-overtime loss at Indiana on Tuesday night all but sealed the deal.
Now, UW will turn its focus to securing a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament, which begins March 13 at the United Center in Chicago.
That won’t be an easy task, either.
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The Badgers still could finish in a three-way tie for third place with Michigan (14-4 Big Ten) and Maryland (12-6). But even in that scenario, UW would lose the tiebreakers and end up as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament, meaning it would have to play a game on March 14 to reach the quarterfinals the following day.
One result that could help the Badgers’ hopes of a double-bye is a Michigan victory at Maryland on Sunday. That would clear a path for UW to finish alone in fourth place, provided it closes the regular season with three consecutive wins.
UW hosts Penn State and Iowa before closing the regular season at Ohio State on March 10.
First things first: The Nittany Lions arrive in Madison having won three consecutive games and five of their past seven after an 0-10 start in Big Ten play.
The Badgers rolled to a 71-52 victory over Penn State in State College on Jan. 6, a rare lopsided win for UW in conference play.
UW assistant coach Howard Moore said the addition of sophomore point guard Jamari Wheeler to the starting lineup has been a big key to the Nittany Lions’ turnaround. Their 5-2 stretch includes home wins over two ranked teams, Michigan and Maryland, in addition to road wins against Northwestern and Illinois.
Wheeler’s presence has made life easier on junior forward Lamar Stevens, who is averaging 26 points and shooting almost 60 percent from the field during Penn State’s three-game winning streak. The Nittany Lions have averaged 85.3 points during that span.
“You’ve got a guy in there who’s taking a lot of pressure off (Stevens) to have to create,” Moore said of Wheeler’s value. “He’s finding him.”
UW needs to get back on track after it went 2 of 11 from the field and 6 of 13 from the free throw line in the two overtimes against the Hoosiers.
It’s the penultimate home game for seniors Ethan Happ, Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas.
And, of course, March has arrived. Any additional losses will only damage the Badgers’ seed placement on Selection Sunday on March 17.
Translation: There better be plenty of urgency from Davison and Co. against the Nittany Lions.
“You put in a lot of time, whether it was in the spring, in the fall, the whole season, to get to this moment,” said Davison, coming off a 1-for-11 shooting performance against Indiana. “We like where we are. Our whole season’s in front of us. We control our own destiny.
“Not only is it a sense of urgency, but it’s a love and a brotherhood we have for one another that we want this thing to end the right way and we don’t want it to end for a little over a month.”