On Jan. 12, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team was 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten. Tonight, the Badgers will be in Philadelphia to play Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament as they look to punch their ticket for their third straight NCAA Elite 8 match-up.
The seventh-seeded Badgers (22-12) have won 10 straight NCAA tournament games in the month of March, including an opening-round victory over Pitt on Friday and a second-round win against Xavier on Sunday. Sixth-seeded Notre Dame (23-11) is a veteran team that is no stranger to making a deep run in the NCAA tourney, coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season.
“It seems like every year nobody talks about Notre Dame in the Selection Sunday or that first week, but you get to the second weekend, there they are,” said Wisconsin Head Coach Greg Gard yesterday at a press conference at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. “Much like us, the names change, the numbers change, but the production in terms of what they do on the floor together and how they grow together, their ability to develop players, I think, doesn’t change.”
The Irish have beaten the likes of Louisville, North Carolina and Duke this season and have made it to the NCAA tournament 8 of the last 10 years. The Badgers have made 18 straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two programs,” Gard said. “Much like us, they’ve had different guys contribute throughout the season and help them grow. For us, we know we have to be really good.”
At the same press conference, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was also very complimentary of the Badgers saying he had the “utmost respect for the Wisconsin program.”
“[Former UW Coach] Bo Ryan and I have been friends for a while. I’ve always respected his program,” Brey said. “Greg Gard should be mentioned for national coach of the year stuff. I mean, this team was 9-9, 1-4. They lost to Milwaukee and Western Illinois at home. And he’s got them really playing.
“I think they’re extremely confident. They’re running what they run and they’ve always run,” Brey added. “And a little bit like us, they believe they’re supposed to win every close game. So I think it makes for an exciting night.”
The Badgers are coming off an exciting night that was the 66-63 upset of second-seeded Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Junior point guard Bronson Koenig hit two 3-pointers in the closing seconds, the last of them as the buzzer sounded, to send the Badgers on to Philadelphia.
“I’m proud of our guys, of how they battled. I told them after the game in the locker room that the last six minutes has kind of been a microcosm of our season,” Gard said after the game. “We were down nine (minutes) with six (points) to play. In November, December, and early January, they refused to give in at that point in time.
“I think for them it’s a good life lesson of understanding that you’re going to be faced with adverse situations throughout your life,” he added. “Continue to work through them, trust the people around you, stick together, don’t flinch in the moment, and trust the process that you’re going through.”
In tonight’s match-up against Notre Dame, forward Nigel Hayes is looking to shake his shooting slump (7-42 from the field over the last 3 games) while freshman center Ethan Happ, who has 33 points, 16 rebounds and is shooting 13-18 (72 percent) from the floor in his first two NCAA tournament games, is looking to stay hot.
A win over Notre Dame would punch Wisconsin’s ticket to the Elite Eight for a third-straight season. Since 1985, the year the tournament expanded to 64 teams, only two Big Ten programs have made three consecutive Elite Eights (Michigan State (1999-2001) and Michigan (1992-94)).
The Badgers and the Irish play in the Sweet 16 tonight with a tip-off at 6:27 p.m. CT.