The venue has changed. So has the mentality of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team as it enters the Big Ten tournament, according to sophomore guard Brad Davison.
The Badgers arrived for the conference’s postseason event last season at Madison Square Garden just hoping to pull off a miracle. Extending the program’s NCAA tournament streak would have required four wins in as many days, but UW managed only one in New York and its season ended just two days into March.
This season, Davison and the Badgers (22-9) will head to Chicago knowing they’ll play next week regardless of whether they get shut out or win a game … or two … or three. UW, the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament, begins play against Nebraska at the United Center on Friday. The Cornhuskers upset No. 21 Maryland 69-61 on Thursday.
“Last year our mindset, we were kind of just playing for pride. We wanted to win as many games as we could, leave it all on the floor,” Davison said. “This year, we’re competing for a Big Ten championship. Our goal, we’re going to take it one game at a time, (but) we’re planning on playing three games. This is a business trip, that’s what we’re going there for.”
Taking care of business also would help the Badgers add to a NCAA tournament resume that already is pretty strong. UW was No. 15 in the NET rankings as of Wednesday morning, and is considered a No. 4 seed by most bracket experts.
More than half of UW’s games this season fall in the Quadrant 1 category, which consists of home games against opponents ranked 1 through 30 in the NET, neutral games against teams ranked 1 through 50 and neutral-site games against 1 through 75. The Badgers have nine Quad 1 wins and seven defeats.
UW is 5-2 in the Quad 2 category. Its worst losses of the season came at home against Minnesota (No. 56) and at Western Kentucky (No. 120).
If things fall right, the Badgers could add three more Quad 1 victories to their total during their time in Chicago.
“We’re not worried about the NCAA tournament right now,” Davison said. “That’s going to take care of itself when it comes, but what we can control is this week and we’ll worry about (next week) after Sunday.”
One of those Quad 1 wins for the Badgers came Sunday at Ohio State, a 73-67 overtime decision. UW walked away from that game 1-0 for the day, but it probably felt more like it was 2-1 after playing well for the first 33 minutes and the final 5 minutes and poorly for the seven minutes in between.
The Badgers were off Monday and didn’t do any on-court basketball activities the following day. But UW coach Greg Gard did guide the team through a film session Tuesday that was, well, educational.
“It was interesting,” Davison said. “You didn’t really know how to feel about going into it. Definitely learn from it and you have to learn from every lesson. But I’d much rather learn from a win than learn from a loss, especially at this time of the year. They don’t have to be pretty anymore, it’s just survive and advance so we’ll take any win we can get and you’ve got to find new ways to win.”
This was an interesting way to win, to say the least. UW led by as many as 23 points in the second half and was up 58-36 after Davison scored with 7:14 remaining in regulation.
But the Buckeyes outscored the Badgers 27-5 over the final 6:54 and had a chance to win on their final possession.
When asked what bothered him the most about that final stretch in regulation, Gard said, “Well, there were many things. You don’t have enough time.”
His biggest takeaway was that it wasn’t just one thing. Gard gave credit to Ohio State, which kicked into desperation mode while trying to win on Senior Day and improve its chances of earning an NCAA tournament bid. The Buckeyes made shots and helped generate some excitement in Value City Arena.
UW, meanwhile, did just about everything it could do to hand the game to Ohio State. The Badgers scored only five points over their final 13 possessions, going 1 of 8 from the field with four turnovers during that stretch.
At times, they forced the issue and took bad shots that led to transition baskets on the other end. Other times, Gard thought his team was too conservative and finished off stagnant possessions with low-percentage shots late in the shot clock. There was a missed shot from point-blank range and a couple head-scratching turnovers.
“It was one possession here or there that if we do a better thing, we squash the whole run,” Gard said. “And we didn’t. Everything we could hand them to generate and fuel their momentum, we did it. So we’ve got to learn from it.”
Senior center Ethan Happ was named a second-team All-American by Sports Illustrated on Wednesday.
Happ was joined on the second team by Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards. Michigan State junior point guard Cassius Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, was named to the first team.
Earlier this week, Happ became the first player in program history to be named first-team All-Big Ten three times in his career.
In a separate All-Big Ten poll conducted by The Associated Press, Happ was a unanimous first-team selection.
The Badgers will compete in the 2019 Legends Classic in New York next season.
UW originally had planned to compete in a tournament in the Cayman Islands but wasn’t impressed with the field in that eight-team event and backed out.
The main draw for the Badgers in the Legends Classic, which will take place Nov. 25-26, is a potential matchup with Auburn. The Tigers are 48-17 under former UW-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl since the start of the 2017-18 season.
In addition to UW and Auburn, the four-team field at the Barclays Center will include New Mexico and Richmond.