2018-02-25-Wis vs Mich State03.JPG

Wisconsin Badgers forward Ethan Happ (22) and guard Brad Davison (34) walk off the court after losing to Michigan State on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, at the Kohl Center in Madison. 

After the University of Wisconsin's gallant effort fell just short against second-ranked Michigan State Sunday at the Kohl Center, freshman guard Brad Davison spoke in the locker room about a possible rematch with the Spartans in the Big Ten conference tournament later this week.

So what did Davison tell his Badgers teammates?

"I just told them we'd rather beat 'em next week anyway," Davison said.

A month ago, such a bold statement might have drawn laughter from anyone within earshot. Well, no one's laughing at the Badgers now.

Their 68-63 loss to the outright Big Ten champions showed just how far they've come under coach Greg Gard in the last three weeks, a stretch where they've silenced many of their doubters by ramping up their competitiveness and consistency.

"It doesn't feel good to lose, obviously," junior center Ethan Happ said. "But I'm proud of the way these guys fought."

Consider what UW was fighting against Sunday. This is coach Tom Izzo's most talented Michigan State team since 2008-09, when the Spartans last won the outright conference title and didn't see their season end until the NCAA championship game. They have a long, physical front line of Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr., who could all be playing in the NBA next season, with Bridges and Jackson likely lottery picks.

Indeed, it would surprise no one if Michigan State earns a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in two weeks. And despite their off-the-court issues, the Spartans showed up intact and on a roll, having won their previous 11 games.

But the Badgers have been on a roll of sorts themselves. Since winning at Illinois to snap a streak of eight losses in nine games, they have gone 4-2, with the losses coming to No. 20 Michigan and now Michigan State.

UW gave people plenty of reason to doubt it for a good portion of a season that began with Happ as the only truly experienced player on the roster and took a hit when guards D'Mitrik Trice and Kobe King were sidelined by injury after 10 games. But while some less-than-patient critics wondered if Gard was the right man for the job or if the program was headed for a big fall because improvement was hard to detect, the Badgers responded by playing better defense and getting contributions from more players.

For sure, UW remains a limited team with too many players who are still trying to round out their games and become more consistent, but the Badgers have turned a corner because they've learned to compete and they've improved individually and collectively. They're not there yet, but they're slowly returning to the gritty, tough-minded style that has become synonymous with UW.

"They're tough as nails," Izzo said. "Gard's done a good job with this team. They went through their injuries, they had to regroup. If you look at the last six or seven games, even in losses, they played awfully well. That's a credit to him and his young players."

Keeping in touch for 40 minutes with a Michigan State team that had beaten it by 15 a month ago showed what UW has become. Every time the Badgers fell behind, they closed it right back up and even led with 7 minutes to go, in part because the gritty Davison introduced himself to the nation by scoring 30 points, many of them after his left shoulder popped out of joint for the umpteenth time this season.

But improvement hasn't been limited to Davison. Happ had trouble finishing against the trio of big men Izzo threw at him, but he never backed down and finished with 13 points. Guard Brevin Pritzl, who has become much more than just a shooter, led UW with nine rebounds. Wing Khalil Iverson has become a defensive stopper and did some great work on Bridges. Forward Charles Thomas, used in place of Andy Van Vliet because his bulk was needed against the physical Spartans, sank three of his four shots. Van Vliet, of course, scored 14 points in a victory over Northwestern last week.

"They're taking steps forward," Gard said. "It's maybe not at the pace that we always want, because coaches are never satisfied, but I think we've seen that ... the guys are trending in the right direction. It's just that we started with only Ethan with a large volume of experience. The other guys have had to play catch-up with 25, 30, 35 minutes in a game and you're playing obviously very high-level teams and the experience sometimes comes in a painful way."

Gard saw signs of improvement in practice even before UW started winning games.

"This group has continued to persevere, continued to work at it," he said. "It hasn't been easy and obviously we have our limitations, but they've improved and become more consistent maybe as well as any group that we've had around here in terms of where we started from and what we had to work through, specifically with inexperience and obviously having to shuffle the deck a little bit in December (due to injuries). Even though you don't like the result (Sunday), we couldn't have competed like this with this group maybe in mid-January. They've stuck with it and that's a credit to our players. They've been very, very resilient."

The Badgers open the Big Ten tournament against Maryland, with the winner facing Michigan State. If nothing else, those teams will take them seriously now. We all should.


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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.