NCAA Tournament

One more shining moment? Wisconsin Badgers' seniors take final shot at March Madness run

If Wisconsin wants to make a deep tournament run, they will have to take down college basketball Goliaths along the way. 

Image By: Graphic by Rodney Lambright II

Vitto Brown almost never wears his two Final Four rings. He knows where they are—in a mural of his athletic achievements at his house in Bowling Green, Ohio—but the rings, for now, are just museum relics on display for visitors of the Brown house to marvel at.

Over the past two years, Brown—who still uses his 2014 Final Four backpack—has come to fully appreciate UW’s 2014 and 2015 deep tournament runs. For that matter, all four of the Wisconsin seniors have grown to realize just how special their early tournament runs were.

And with one final NCAA Tournament run looming, Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter are hoping the adversity that they have experienced since their heartbreaking loss in the National Championship game two years ago culminates in one more Final Four ring.

Immediately upon Hayes, Koenig and Brown’s arrival in Madison, success was almost a given.

“They’ve seen really good times. They walked into two Final Fours, which was kind of a utopia,” head coach Greg Gard said.

It was during those back-to-back regional championships that the current senior class was at its best. They were role players back then, making timely plays as the superstars handled the heavy lifting. Since those superstars left, though, that utopia the seniors were used to has looked more like an Orwellian society.

Some adversity was expected. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, Wisconsin’s two best players during both Final Four runs, left after the 2014-‘15 season to the NBA. Other veteran players like Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan also graduated, and those young contributors were asked to be the stars.

But few could have predicted the Badgers losing their season opener last year to Western Illinois at the Kohl Center or consecutive losses to in-state rivals Milwaukee and Marquette. Fewer still could have known that after their victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in mid-December Bo Ryan would suddenly retire.

When Gard moved into the lead chair last season, UW continued to struggle, losing four of its next six games. And even after a late-season run, which culminated in a Sweet 16 appearance, Brown, Hayes and Koenig walked off the floor in Philadelphia without reaching a Final Four for the first time in their careers.

“These past couple years have been filled with a lot of adversity,” Koenig said. “[It] kind of showed us what we need to do to make us stronger and make us better.”

Before his junior season, Hayes recognized that he was now tasked with filling the shoes left by Kaminsky and Dekker.

“For us to have any amount of success like I’ve been accustomed to over the past two years, I need to make another tremendous leap,” Hayes said before last year.

But instead of making the leap, Hayes has regressed in some ways, most notably as a shooter. After Wisconsin’s loss to Iowa in its second-to-last regular-season game, Hayes said he was in a “sunken place.” Wisconsin had lost five-of-six games and Koenig, Brown, Showalter and Hayes had struggled throughout.

“They’ll realize, ‘We’re not as good as we think we are, and we need to play together as a team to get to where we want to accomplish,’” Zach Bohannon, a captain on UW’s 2014 Final Four team, said.

The Badgers closed the regular season with a victory over Minnesota, and in the Big Ten tournament they took Bohannon’s advice to heart. Wisconsin tied a season-high in assists in its quarterfinal win against Indiana. In its victory over Northwestern, UW played its most complete game of the year. Yet the Badgers struggled in the second half of the Big Ten Championship game and left Washington, D.C. with a sour taste in its mouth.

Wisconsin has an uphill battle ahead. There are no Frank Kaminskys, Sam Dekkers or Josh Gassers walking through the locker room doors. And while this senior class has already reached two Final Fours, Brown and Showalter especially are looking to reach the pinnacle again, this time as key contributors.

“I guess I appreciate what we’ve done even more being in [Kaminsky and Dekker’s] shoes and having to play in games like that,” Showalter said.

Much of this senior class’s story has already been written. As freshman, Bohannon said they were an unusually large and tight-knit class. He added that they helped Ryan “mellow out” and become more of a player’s coach.

Freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice says that as seniors, they have maintained their tight bonds and noted that their camaraderie “proves what Wisconsin basketball is all about.”

This senior class will go down as one of the winningest classes in Wisconsin history. Brown knows that one day in his future he will truly appreciate just how magical his first two seasons were. Yet as the Badgers prepare to face Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, questions remain as to how deep this team will go.

Showalter’s two Final Four rings lie dormant in a drawer of his apartment. He hasn’t looked at them in a while, but he knows where to look if he needs a reminder of what the Badgers are fighting for.

“That’s some good motivation for me right now,” Showalter said. “Maybe I should pull those back out.”

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