A year ago, the Badgers strode into the Big Ten Tournament one of the hottest teams in the conference, having won 11-of-13 games and locking up a 15th-straight Top 4 finish. They were promptly bounced by 11-seed Nebraska in their first game.
This season, No. 24 Wisconsin (12-6 Big Ten, 23-8 overall) is looking to flip that script. After dropping five-of-seven games to close the regular season, UW is eager to earn some redemption against 10-seed Indiana (7-11, 17-14) in its first tournament matchup.
“We won it two years ago, and then obviously kind of laid an egg last year,” redshirt senior guard Zak Showalter said. “We gotta go in knowing that teams are gonna bring their A-game against us every time and try to get back on the winning track in the Big Ten Tournament.”
After stumbling to the 2017 finish line, the Badgers finally looked like the team that once rose as high as No. 7 in the country in the second half of their regular-season finale against Minnesota. UW outscored the Golden Gophers by 19 points as senior guard Bronson Koenig finally came to life and the defense clamped down.
“We knew we could still get the 2-seed if we took care of our business,” Showalter added. “We stayed composed, and I think now we got that win and we got some momentum going. We’re ready to go to D.C.”
Friday evening, the Badgers will try to take down the Hoosiers for the third time this season. UW won the previous two meetings, 75-68 in early January and 65-60 in early February. The first game capped UW’s longest win streak of the season, but the second victory happened just before the floor fell out.
The Badgers avoided two of the Hoosiers’ three best players in that February meeting, as OG Anunoby and James Blackmon both sat with injuries. Now, however, Blackmon is back and is leading a high-flying IU offense.
The junior guard torched Iowa to the tune of 23 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, in the Hoosiers’ first conference matchup. The UW defense has, at times, been susceptible to quick, offensive-minded guards, but did manage to hold Blackmon to 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting from the floor in the first meeting between the two schools.
Indiana also features a high-profile big man in forward Thomas Bryant, who has been rendered largely ineffective against the Badgers this season. But to keep pace with the Hoosiers, UW will have to put the ball in the basket, especially in the paint, something the team has struggled to do of late. Redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ, usually the Badgers’ most reliable scorer, missed eight of his 12 shots against Minnesota, all of which came in the paint.
“We work on it a lot. Ethan had it easier early in the season, because guys didn’t show him as much attention,” Showalter said. “But now they know how good of a player he is, what he’s capable of doing, so he’s dealing with a lot more congestion in there.”
The Badgers know that they’re now in single-elimination territory. They know that each game matters, and they can’t play like they did in February if they want to leave a lasting impact on the program.
As it stands, the UW senior class has accrued 111 wins, tied for second-most in school history. Jordan Smith holds the record with 115 wins; these Badgers can get there, but it has to start now.
The Badgers tip off against Indiana Friday at 5:30 p.m. from the Verizon Center.