NEW YORK — Moments after knocking off No. 1 overall seed Villanova 65-62 in Buffalo last Saturday, No. 8 seed Wisconsin (27-9) senior forward Nigel Hayes went over to the crowd to find his family. His mother, Talaya Davis, gave Hayes a hug and screamed loudly in his ear. His stepfather, Albert Davis Sr., teary-eyed, gave him a hug as well.
“Hey, be tough. This is what’s supposed to happen,” Hayes said to his stepfather. “’This is what I’ve worked so hard for in the mornings and late at night, to do stuff like this.’”
Sweet Sixteen appearances have become routine for Hayes and the rest of UW’s senior class. The Badgers are making their fourth-consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen, the longest active streak in the nation. No school has more Sweet Sixteen appearances in the last seven years and no active players have scored as many points as both Hayes and senior guard Bronson Koenig in the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve done this before,” Hayes said after UW’s victory last weekend. “It’s my fourth Sweet Sixteen. I’ve done it before. I’ve seen everything else that there is to be seen. I’ve done everything you can do in the tournament except hold the trophy in April. So that’s all I really want to do.”
After Wisconsin’s win over Villanova, while Hayes’ teammates were celebrating and congratulating each other, Hayes told them, “We almost lost the game.”
But in recent years, Wisconsin has found a way of beating top-teams in March. In the last four years it has knocked off three No. 1 seeds, two No. 2 seeds and has 13 total NCAA tournament victories. And throughout it all, the Badgers’ mindset has remained the same.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs through my career,” redshirt senior guard Zak Showalter said. “Teams that kind of dwell when you’re that low, or ride the emotions too much when you’re that high, that’s when you crash back down.”
Wisconsin, instead, prides itself on remaining levelheaded throughout it all. Whether leading or trailing, the Badgers understand the importance of remaining even-keeled.
“It was kind of shocking when I got here how everyone was pretty mellow all the time,” sophomore forward Alex Illikainen said. “It’s definitely been passed down from the older guys, and I think all of us have received that.”
But while UW has learned to remain cool, calm and collected thanks to countless late NCAA tournament runs, its opponent Friday night, No. 4 seed Florida, (26-8) is thin on postseason experience.
This is UF head coach Mike White’s first NCAA tournament appearance since joining the college coaching ranks. And only Gator guard Kenny Hill had played in an NCAA tournament game before this season.
While both White and Hill said that they don’t feel like it’s a disadvantage to be going up against a Wisconsin team that has experienced almost all there is to experience in March, UW senior forward Vitto Brown said that UW’s added experience helps contribute to its calm demeanor and in turn, its postseason success.
“I think every team in this tournament that’s still here has the factor, has the ability to remain calm in these pressure situations,” Brown said. “But historically, we know that when we get out of ourselves and we don’t stay calm, like in last year’s game [against Notre Dame], things go the other way.”
Last season, against the Fighting Irish, Wisconsin was up one-point with 17 seconds to play. After turning the ball over three-times in the remaining seconds and allowing six consecutive points, the Badgers let a sure-fire victory slip away.
Brown and Showalter agree that UW’s loss to Notre Dame in last season’s Sweet Sixteen helped them to remain calm even when trailing by seven-points with 5:41 to play against Villanova, an elite offensive and defensive team, last weekend.
Friday night against the Gators, Wisconsin will face yet another elite defensive team. They surrender only 65.7 points per game, and have the third best defense in Ken Pomeroy’s points per 100 possessions. UF sports a potent offense as well, averaging almost 78 points per game. Three players, KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Barry and Devin Robinson, average more than ten points per game. And Hill, UF’s senior leader, averages 9.7 points per game.
But Wisconsin has been in these situations before. And Hayes and the rest of the Badgers expected to be here.
This is, after all, what was “supposed to happen.”
The Badgers tip off against the Gators Friday night at 8:59 p.m. from Madison Square Garden.