Tough road awaits surging Wisconsin, 
back in Big Ten picture

Associated Press

February 13, 2016

           

Wisconsin interim coach Greg Gard yells to his team during the second half of its NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska on Wednesday in Madison. Wisconsin won 72-61.

The toughest two-game stretch of the season has arrived for Wisconsin.

At No. 2 Maryland on Saturday. At No. 8 Michigan State next week.

Winners of six in a row, the Badgers can improve their postseason credentials if they can pull off an upset or two on the road. The Badgers (15-9, 7-4 Big Ten) are clawing their way back into the NCAA Tournament conversation, a year removed from a trip to the national title game and a second consecutive Final Four appearance.

Wisely, they're only concentrating on the Terrapins for now.

"It's in the back of your mind," forward Vitto Brown said about the tournament before adding, "we won't try to look past any opponent ... don't try to look at the big picture."

It is still worth a look back just to see how far the Badgers have come.

A loss to lowly Western Illinois in the season opener hurt, as did defeats at home to in-state rivals Milwaukee and Marquette. The midseason retirement of coach Bo Ryan was a stunner.

Wisconsin started 1-4 under interim coach Greg Gard, and the outlook seemed dire after a five-point loss at Northwestern on Jan. 12 dropped the Badgers to 1-4 in conference play.

Since then, perfection.

The streak includes victories at home over the Spartans and Indiana, both ranked teams at the time. The first four victories came on the strength of inside play.

Outside shooting helped lift the Badgers in their last two wins, when they hit 24 of 45 from 3-point range. Wisconsin had an answer with opponents focusing on forwards Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ.

"The word is out that we like to touch the post. We kept it a secret as long as we could ... and now it's out," Gard said after the 72-61 victory on Wednesday over Nebraska. The Badgers went 11 of 18 from behind the arc in that game.

After losing so many close games, the Badgers are finding different ways to succeed.

"To still be able to find a way was, I thought, a sign of maturity," Gard said. "To rally, pick each other up and move forward."

The coaches and players say much of the improvement is due to how the team got closer through adversity.

On the court, the Badgers have grown more comfortable with Gard's tweaks. Brown said the team is moving the ball better and "starting to get a sense of where things are going to be."

Part of that improvement stems from using more of the swing offense upon which Ryan used to rely, which depends on good spacing, screening and passing.

Hayes has turned into a take-charge scorer, a role expected from the team's best player. Guard Bronson Koenig's 3-point accuracy has improved.

For Brown, scoring output has increased steadily during the streak, an impressive run considering that he has been recovering from a rib injury that had sidelined him for a couple practices and slowed him in games.

Against Nebraska, Brown scored 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including all 3 of 3 from the 3-point line.

Brown said the injury, in retrospect, helped him "slow down a little bit." He was able see the game a little differently while sitting out practice.

"Mentally, I was fine," he said. "When I tried to translate it into actual action, I went 100 mph."

It echoes of Gard's calming, steady influence. It's an attitude that the Badgers hope to keep under pressure in the final month of the regular season.

There is no letup after Maryland and Michigan State, with a home game against Michigan and road games at ranked teams Iowa and Purdue among dates left on the schedule.