Just a short while after 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket had been released and the Wisconsin Badgers had been infected with a slightly nasty strain of March Madness, coach Greg Gard appeared on the temporary Big Ten Network set at the Verizon Center in Washington and was asked if he were distressed his team was slapped with the No. 8 seed in the East Region.
Gard’s response? You’ve got to just move on and focus on the game.
That’s how Wisconsin plays it, whether the opponent is Big Ten last-place finisher Rutgers or the No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, Villanova. And that is why Division I basketball will have a new champion this season. Wisconsin pulled off a 65-62 upset Saturday afternoon in Buffalo, N.Y., and a senior class of Badgers who’d known nothing but tournament success will depart having never felt the pain of a first-weekend elimination.
That was true under Hall of Fame candidate Bo Ryan, who directed the Badgers to Final Four appearances in 2014 and 2015, his last two full seasons. And it has remained true under Gard, his longtime assistant, who has been a head coach for less than two full seasons but now is entering his second consecutive Sweet 16.
Neither of the two seasons Gard has finished for the Badgers went perfectly, but each, in the end, has continued deep into that part of the season that matters the most.
When he took over as an interim coach upon Ryan’s sudden retirement in December 2015, the Badgers were a surprising 7-5 and seemed destined to miss their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. When the challenge of the coaching transition led to an 0-3 Big Ten start, it appeared the program’s improbable string of top-four conference finishes would end at 14.
Facing the possibility of losing his dream job before he even had it for keeps, Gard returned all of the Wisconsin to Wisconsin. The grinding “Swing” offense Ryan brought to the Badgers from his decades as a championship coach at Wisconsin-Platteville had been largely set aside when UW assembled the monstrous talent that claimed back-to-back Final Four trips: Sam Dekker, Naismith Trophy winner Frank Kaminsky and more.
Without those guys, and with a .500 record, Gard chose to restore the Swing — and Wisconsin began to win. The Badgers won nine of their final dozen Big Ten games. They earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAAs, and they defeated both No. 10 Pitt and No. 2 Xavier to reach the Sweet 16.
This season they appeared headed for a Big Ten championship midway through the season, but an injury to point guard Bronson Koenig and the lingering senioritis struggles of classmate Nigel Hayes led a string of sub-par performances in victories and later five defeats in a six-game stretch. The Badgers were fortunate to finish second.
Those who expected panic or collapse have not been paying attention to Wisconsin, for these two years or the 14 before it. Gard boldly rested Koenig for a mid-February road trip to Michigan that predictably ended in defeat. The Badgers began losing even as he regained his grip on his game, but it simply was a matter of All-American Ethan Happ recovering his touch in dealing with double-teams and, ultimately, Hayes deciding he was all in for what little remained of his college career.
Hayes was a starter for the 2015 team that played in the NCAA title game and the sixth man for the 2014 Final Four team. He was projected as preseason Big Ten Player of the Year before this season, but instead he delivered four single-figure scoring games in his first eight, saw his free throw percentage drop below 60 percent and his scoring average fall by a basket per game.
The attention he drew when he protested for student/athletes’ rights outside ESPN’s "GameDay" location in October, and when he spoke up regarding racial injustice, wasn’t always supportive or even just analytically critical. Some of it was harsh. Some of it was worse than harsh.
“There are external things that do (affect) how they act, even out here,” Wisconsin assistant coach Howard Moore told the Milwaukee Journal’s Jeff Potrykus in January. “There were a lot of things going on that weren’t great. It wears on a kid like that, especially when he is as locked in and engaged on a lot of the social issues and things that are going on.”
Hayes also seemed, though, to have lost some of his engagement with the program. The Hayes who has played in March is the one everyone pictured at the start of this season, or even a year before that when Sporting News projected him as a first-team All-American. His averages in single-elimination postseason games: 15.4 points, 9.6 rebounds. Wisconsin’s record in those games: 4-1.
Wisconsin’s NCAA Tournament record with Hayes and Koenig in the rotation: 13-3.
“I think a lot of those games probably — excuse me, correction: All of those games we’ve been the underdog,” Hayes said after the Villanova win. “You have all types of your ranking systems, statistics, analytic guys. The thing is, with all those algorithms, they can’t calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire. They can’t put that into a formula to come out with a percentage chance to win, and that’s the things that we have, the things that we’ve grown with.”
The growth has continued, from Ryan to Gard. Even though Hayes made the game’s biggest basket with a ball-fake okey-doke that freed him for a very stylish reverse layup, through the course of 40 minutes no one Wisconsins like Wisconsin. It plays differently than pretty much everyone, and when it Wisconsins like this it is a problem even for the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the defending NCAA champion.
Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes makes the go-ahead layup. (Getty Images)
Even with their February funk, the Badgers were 25-9 on Selection Sunday and should have been nowhere near an 8-9 game. Because being in that game putthem very near to the top seed in their region. Too close for Villanova’s comfort.
“Seeds don’t matter,” Gard declared in Saturday’s postgame press conference. “I said that all along.”
He certainly did. It matters to Villanova, though. The Wildcats got Wisconsin'd, and that will not be easy to shake.