The momentum of a blowout win against North Carolina wasn’t enough for the Wisconsin Badgers (18-13 overall, 10-10 Big Ten) to overcome the No. 1 seed Baylor Bears (24-2 overall, 13-1 Big 12) as they lost in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 by a score of 76-63.
The Badgers got off to a surprisingly good start early on. Some early threes and solid defense allowed them to hang with the Bears for the early part of the first half. It wasn’t long, however, before the more athletic and equally experienced Baylor squad pulled away.
Baylor has made a living this year on tenacity and aggressiveness, and they were able to impose their will on the Badgers. Guard Davion Mitchell exploded for 16 points and 8 assists, and Big 12 Player of the Year Jared Butler added 16 of his own as well. These two are good for double-digit scoring efforts every night, so that wasn’t a surprise.
The surprise came in the form of the mulleted mortician Matthew Mayer, who destroyed the Badgers from both distance and in the paint for a game-high 17 points, six rebounds and two steals off the bench. Baylor shot 45.5% from the field and 47% from deep.
This loss wasn’t like the rest of the Badgers’ losses this year, though. A lot of their losses to top teams were a result of an inability to create offense and an inability to hit shots when they did. But the Badgers shot well; they equaled Baylor’s 45.5% shooting from the field and shot 38% from the field, well above what they normally shoot against top teams.
What killed the Badgers on Sunday afternoon was something that they rarely let themselves do: turnovers.
The Badgers had 14 turnovers compared to just four for the Bears. Turning the ball over against Baylor almost definitely means a fastbreak chance for one of the most athletic teams in the nation, and that’s what they did; Baylor had 16 points off of turnovers compared to just two for Wisconsin.
The Badgers had a chance towards the end of the game after cutting the Baylor lead down to single digits with around nine minutes left in the game. But, a scoring drought came at the worst possible time and the Badgers failed to put a single point on the board for over four minutes. That’s the story of this season’s Badgers, and that’s how their season ended.
The Badgers, of course, have six seniors in their rotation that normally wouldn’t be eligible to return. Because of new rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all NCAA players are granted an extra year of eligibility.
Head coach Greg Gard declined to speculate on which seniors would return. Both Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice made Instagram posts that seemed to imply that their Wisconsin careers were over. Trice explicitly said “A new chapter begins.”
The Bears will go on to the Sweet Sixteen to take on the No. 5 Villanova Wildcats. The Badgers will head back to Madison as a preseason top-ten team that didn’t live up to its lofty expectations, but that’s far from the whole story. They managed to play an entire season of basketball in a pandemic without a single COVID-related pause and overcame the pain of winning a Big Ten regular season title last year and not having a tournament to show for it.
This season did not end how the players and coaches wanted it to. But the team made it through the season as unscathed by the pandemic as they could possibly be, which is a massive success itself. In a pandemic year, sometimes you just need to be grateful for the wins you do get instead of the ones that slip away.