As the calendar turned to February, unfamiliar territory became reality as the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball program tumbled down the Big Ten standings and towards missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years.
But, as the season has wound down, the Badgers haven’t given up on themselves or the future of this team.
That was on full display on Thursday night in a 70-64 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats. UW is now on a three-game win streak, its longest since a five-game win streak to end non-conference play and begin Big Ten play version 2.0.
Ethan Happ has an idea as to why the turnaround has happened, and it’s a simple solution.
“I think early we were finding ways to lose games,” Happ said, via the Wisconsin State Journal. “and now we’re finding ways to win them.”
While beating Minnesota and Northwestern should be expected of this team regardless of the season they are having, winning against fellow bottom half teams has been anything but a given for most of the season for this Badgers team. Confidence certainly grew on Frank Kaminsky’s jersey retirement night, beating at top 10 team in Purdue, and it seems as if the momentum has been contagious.
Once left for dead, juniors Andy Van Vliet, Brevin Pritzl and Khalil Iverson were the backbone of UW’s success against the Wildcats. Pritzl continued his hot-shooting with his fifth double figure scoring effort (11) in the last six games. Van Vliet put up his best effort in the Big Ten season, scoring 14 points and playing a season-high 24 minutes in the process. Iverson had 16 points, 6 rebounds and was 4 of 5 from the free throw line.
It was an effort that few saw coming, but also a sign that all three have been working tirelessly to get themselves in a position to be counted on down the stretch. Iverson has come on sooner than the other two, but Pritzl’s late-season resurgence and Van Vliet’s effort on Thursday show that hope isn’t actually lost for a class that largely (and rightfully) blamed for the Badgers struggles earlier in the season.
Credit has to go to the players and to the coaching staff. Both kept working through some hard times this season and the fruits of that labor are coming just as a seemingly lost season is coming to a close.
Gard could’ve just given up on Pritzl and Van Vliet, and he certainly punished them for a lack of quality play with seats deep on the bench through large parts of the season. But, he also recognized the work they put in, was willing to give a second chance and saw that faith pay off.
While one game and one stretch of wins doesn’t a guaranteed turnaround make, it’s the details of that effort that matter most.
No longer are the Badgers Ethan Happ and no one else. Happ is certainly the cornerstone of this team, as his 15 of 19 points in the second half performance demonstrated, but no longer is this a team that can only count on him to score and get a team going offensively.
It’s led to three straight games where slow starts really haven’t been the case offensively and a defensive turnaround that has been really helpful. Four of Wisconsin’s lat six losses came as teams scored over 70 points, meanwhile in each of the last three wins no team has scored in the 70’s and no team has scored more than 64
Sure, the Wildcats are struggling down the stretch and are on a now five-game losing streak, but the Badgers team that lost to Northwestern at home was not on display on Thursday night and hasn’t been on display in the final two weeks of the season really.
Instead of giving up massive leads due to cold shooting and bad defense, Wisconsin has maintained an even approach and worked to get better despite some in the fanbase giving up on this “talentless” team.
Three wins in a row for the Badgers. Still some things to work out, but for the most part this team looks infinitely better than they did in January. Really fun to watch this young team grow.
— Badger Sports Talk (@BadgerSports1) February 23, 2018
While he season won’t end with the Badgers in the post-season unless they make a run to the Big Ten tournament, it is clear this team is growing.
That’s a good sign for a young team and one that will get to hit the reset button next year thanks to season-ending injuries to both D’Mitrick Trice and Kobe King. Add those pieces to a puzzle that is finally fitting together well and this could be a very dangerous team very quickly next season.
The question will be if the late-season momentum can carry on or will it die off? Considering the players who haven’t given up on themselves, the future seems brighter than it did just a month ago.