The red-hot Wisconsin Badgers (8-4 Big Ten, 16-9 overall) picked up two more wins this past week after taking down Nebraska (6-7, 14-12) Wednesday with a convincing 72-61 victory at the Kohl Center and ending No. 2 Maryland’s (10-3, 22-4) home win streak Saturday with a 70-57 upset at the Xfinity Center.
Head coach Greg Gard was extremely impressed with his young team’s growth after its shaky start to the season.
“I think that—it really was—it was growth in a lot of areas, but understanding that process and how we had to do that step by step,” Gard explained. “They've really bought into that, and they've taken on that mantra and it was evident Saturday night.”
Gard also had a glowing endorsement of junior forward Vitto Brown, who has improved immensely throughout the later part of the season.
“He's matured in so many ways which is great to see as a coach,” Gard said. “When you have somebody come into your program that is trying to learn the game and learn different parts of the game and how important, maybe, statistical numbers—sometimes young players get so caught up in numbers they don't understand other pieces of the game, and I think Vitto has come through that process where he's understood the intangibles in the game, and that's helped his numbers grow.”
Gard also praised Brown on how he handled the technical foul situation with Maryland freshman Diamond Stone Saturday after Stone hit Brown's head against the floor just before halftime.
“I think his maturity level of handling the incident—obviously we know it's an emotional game at times, and things happen and to be able to collect yourself—and that was my message to him in that little huddle with 1.8 [seconds] to go, when they were deciding what to do,” Gard said. “It wasn't going to be over so move on from that emotional incident and get back to what's important.”
The Badgers haven’t played at Michigan State for a few years, but Gard isn’t too worried about the team’s lack of familiarity with the venue.
I don't think [most of the team not playing there before] really matters, because it will be a possession-by-possession game, just like Saturday night's game, and that's how you win in any road game, let alone—I don't think it's been the venue, so to speak, that we've gone into, whether it be Michigan State or Maryland. I think it's because Maryland has been very good; the team they have on the floor is very good. Coach [Tom] Izzo's teams that he puts on the floor are very good, and sometimes the venue gets overblown,” Gard said.
Wisconsin is back in action Thursday at 8 p.m. when it travels to Michigan State (8-5, 21-5) and then will return to the Kohl Center Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. to take on Illinois (3-9, 11-14).
The Badgers (3-11 Big Ten, 7-17 overall) returned from a difficult week of play, picking up a win when Purdue (7-7, 16-9) came to town, and a pair of losses on the road at Michigan (7-7, 15-10) and Indiana (9-5, 17-9).
Head coach Bobbie Kelsey was impressed with the fight and effort displayed by her team, even after two tough losses.
“Obviously we wanted to try to get more than one of those games to win, but proud of the he kids that they keep battling and we just fell a little bit short,” Kelsey said. “Getting to the end, five or six points and maybe we give up an assignment somewhere and somebody is not quite where they're supposed to be, but it's not for lack of effort.”
Kelsey is not nervous about playing Illinois Wednesday at the Kohl Center, and offered up some praise for a few of her players who have particularly upped their game.
“We're looking forward to playing Illinois. We have had some kids really step up, Michala Johnson has stepped up her game, Avyanna Young has stepped up her game, and the usual suspects are right behind those two, but we're happy to say that we've outrebounded some folks and kept our turnovers down, so there are some positives of not closing out these games quite like we want to,” Kelsey said.
With four games and the Big Ten tournament to go, Kelsey has instilled a positive mindset in the locker room.
“It's been tough for them because we haven't gotten the results we wanted,” Kelsey said. “But we try to keep them focused on going out, finishing strong and not having a pity party for yourself when things are going not your way. It's easy to give up, hard to stay positive, stay focused and do some of those little things that we have been doing to keep ourselves in the game. If you're not in it, you don't have a chance.”
The Badgers are back in action at the Kohl Center Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Illinois (1-13, 8-17) and Saturday at 1 p.m. against Northwestern (3-11, 14-12).
Women’s Swimming & Diving
The Badgers (5-3) are currently in full preparation for this week’s Big Ten Championships, which start this Wednesday at the University of Michigan. After a successful dual meet season that included wins over traditional powers Minnesota, Florida State and Auburn, head coach Whitney Hite’s team is ready to show they’re ready for Big Tens.
Hite has been extremely impressed with many of his swimmers this season, especially juniors Chase Kinney and Danielle Valley.
“[Kinney] really has stepped up and done very, very well, kind of taken over that sprint piece for us. When you have a hammer at the end of the relay to throw down—and she is very competitive and has really done a nice job,” Hite said.
“Danielle Valley has been terrific for us this year, transfer from Florida,” Hite explained. “She grew up in Florida and things didn't work out there can we were about the only place that she came on a visit during the recruiting process, so it's been a process for her to kind of adjust to our system and how we train, but she is as tough of a swimmer as I've ever coached and that's saying a lot. That girl is—she is tough.”
Hite said his divers have also stepped up.
“I'm very excited about our diving. We're going to get some points out of our divers this year, which is really great; it's been a point of emphasis for us as our team and program has evolved,” Hite said.
On the possibility of winning a Big Ten title, Hite is guarded but hopeful.
“Anything is possible. Anything is possible. You don't want to limit anybody. I believe in our women. Do I think that we may be a year away? Yeah. But you never know. It is wide open this year. Again, we could be third or we could be seventh. We've got to show up. If we show up like we can, anything is possible. We'll see,” Hite said.
The Big Ten championships start Wednesday morning in Ann Arbor, Mich. This is the last meet of the season for many Badger swimmers and divers, and those who have qualified will swim and dive at the NCAA Championships March 17-20 in Atlanta.
After rolling over Minnesota State (0-23-3 WCHA, 3-25-4 overall) last weekend, Wisconsin (24-1-1, 30-1-1) clinched its first WCHA championship since 2012, which has head coach Mark Johnson feeling fine.
“We held our banquet last night after the game, and again, another emotional night saying goodbye to the seniors and having our parents in attendance; it was a good day,” Johnson said. “I got home last night, 9:30, on my couch, very relaxed and a smile on my face, so—good day.”
At this point, there’s very little that could chase the smile from Johnson’s face. This season has the making to be one of the finest in Wisconsin history, but that’s not something Johnson is about to take credit for.
“You compliment the players for doing that the time commitment, and yesterday they got rewarded because yesterday after the game—this is the toughest trophy to win to me in women’s hockey, because it takes so long to get there and so many things have to go right and you have to be consistent, you have to make improvements and you have to make adjustments, and this group has been able to do that, and certainly a feather in their cap for winning the league championship.”
Minnesota hosts Wisconsin this weekend for another edition of the Border Battle, a fight the Badgers are running away with the season after sweeping the Golden Gophers in early December and clinching the conference title last weekend. While there won’t be anything on the line in terms of conference standings, Johnson is grateful the Badgers will wrap up the regular season against their bitter rivals.
“So when you play a couple of games at a real fast pace, and you play against a real strong opponent, you usually come back [to] it that next game and play at the same level, so when we play Minnesota Saturday afternoon and get ready for a playoff game against Minnesota State, Mankato, and can play at that pace we play at this weekend, that’s going to be good for us.”
The Badgers take on the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. They will then have about a week to recharge before beginning the WCHA Playoffs with home-ice advantage against Minnesota State Feb. 26.
In a season characterized by disappointment and clouded by the uncertainty surrounding the future of the team’s leadership, head coach Mike Eaves considered Wisconsin’s series with Michigan last weekend a step in the right direction.
The Badgers (1-8-3 Big Ten, 6-13-7 overall) fell to the No. 16 Wolverines (9-2-3, 18-4-5) 4-1 Friday and tied Michigan Saturday in regulation before dropping the shootout 1-0. Eaves felt UW’s effort Saturday was exemplary.
“On Saturday night, you know, it’s happened several times, we’ve come off the bench and shaken the other coaches’ hands, and they’re very complimentary to our group, but that and 90 cents will get you a cup of coffee, not a 'W,' so the way we played, 44 shots by our count, we out-chanced them,” Eaves said.
As caffeinated as Wisconsin may have been Saturday, it still couldn’t quite shake the gloom surrounding the 2015-’16 campaign. Following their sweep of Alaska the last weekend in January, the Badgers had cause for optimism after going well over a month without a win. That hope came crashing down against Big Blue, and Eaves’ frustration is becoming increasingly evident.
“So, again, I sound like I’m a broken record in terms of we keep forging ahead in the direction we’re going, but to paint a picture of what the maximum is, I [wouldn’t] want to say something goofy like we could do something really special, but that might be reaching, or if I limit it, that’s not fair either to our group,” Eaves said. “If we keep getting better and doing the things that we are and pushing each other—it’s amazing how this group in all that we’ve been through—when we’re not winning, it’s real easy to get negative and despondent in the locker room, and this group has gone the other way.”
Wisconsin now will try to break its cyclical ways against Michigan State (3-10-1, 7-20-3), which that Badgers split a series with in early December in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans have had their share of troubles as well, as they endured an eight-game losing streak in December and January that they didn’t snap until they beat the U.S. National Team Development Program U-18 team in overtime Jan. 23. Eaves hopes the series will serve as a turning point, much like he hoped Wisconsin’s first matchup with the Spartans would.
“We showed the resilience that this group has show all year long, and so that was why it looked like it could be a real galvanizing point point of the season, but now we’ve got them back in here and the key to their team is a young goaltender, [senior Jake] Hildebrand, he’s one of the best around, and he gives them a chance to win every night, and we’re going to have to make it difficult for him.”
The Badgers take on Michigan State at the Kohl Center Friday and Saturday, with both games starting at 8 p.m.