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The Badgers are Playing Wisconsin Basketball Again, and Back in the Sweet 16

After a slow start and a mid-season coaching change, the Badgers have plodded their way back to the Sweet 16.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

Two months ago, it seemed unfathomable that Wisconsin would be getting ready to play in its third straight Sweet Sixteen.

We often say that about teams that underachieved during the season, but in January, it's safe to say that no power conference team in the NCAA Tournament looked like a bigger Sweet Sixteen longshot than the Badgers.

Wisconsin started the season 9-9, including losses to Western Illinois, UW-Milwaukee, Marquette, Northwestern and Georgetown. Those losses — particularly the first two — gave the Badgers an enormous uphill climb back into the NCAA Tournament field. And to make matters worse,the legendary Bo Ryan retired mid-season, replaced by interim coach Greg Gard.


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The January 12 loss to Northwestern dropped Wisconsin to 63rd in the ratings, and even their best player, Nigel Hayes, knew the team was in trouble.

"I'm f---ing pissed," he said.

Whatever happened after that game sparked a revival. Wisconsin has gone 13-3 since then, including wins over Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, Michigan, Pitt and Xavier. That's a top-tier resume in its own right. Some of the turnaround has just been dumb luck — the wins over Michigan State, Indiana, Pitt and Xavier all came by single digits — but overall, Wisconsin has seen a major improvement on offense.

The Badgers were scoring a dismal 0.97 points per possession against KenPom top 100 foes through their first 18 games. Since then, almost overnight, the Badgers are scoring 1.16 point per possession. The average Wisconsin game is 63.9 possessions, so that's almost 12 points per game at an average pace.

Part of Wisconsin's success has been its ability to play at its own pace. The Badgers have one of the slowest teams in college basketball, limiting possessions and making the most out of the ones they get.

In their first round NCAA Tournament matchup against Pitt, the Badgers kept the game to an incredibly slow 54 possessions despite a miserable first half shooting performance that resulted in just 16 points at halftime. The slower the pace, the fewer chances Pitt would have to extend its lead, and the better the odds were that Wisconsin could catch up if it started shooting like itself. Sure enough, the Badgers' offense improved and they pulled out the win.

In the second round, Wisconsin played a bit faster, but still slower than Xavier would have liked. The Musketeers had the better team, but with fewer possessions, Wisconsin stayed within striking distance, and hoped for some big shots at the end. The plan worked, as Bronson Koenig hit game-tying and game-winning three-pointers in the final 15 seconds to help the Badgers advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Wisconsin's plan works because they have the talent to take advantage of its scheme. Koenig and Hayes are both threats to go off at any time, and Big Ten freshman of the year Ethan Happ has improved, as well. Vitto Brown has turned himself into an effective three-point threat.

The Badgers have individual players who can go off at any moment, like Koenig did against Xavier. Those players combined to become a very efficient offense in the latter half of the season. In cases where they aren't shooting the lights out and don't have the upper hand, they plod along and keep it close until they can start shooting well again.

Suddenly, Wisconsin is Wisconsin again, even if that seemed impossible just two months ago.