Beware of the Badgers: Wisconsin basketball is rising

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  • Wisoconsin’s head coach Greg Gard watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Illinois at the State Farm Center on Sunday, January 31. The Illini lost 63-55.

    Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

  • Wisoconsin’s head coach Greg Gard watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Illinois at the State Farm Center on Sunday, January 31. The Illini lost 63-55.

    Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

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By Dan Escalona

Tweet: The Wisconsin Badgers are back in the March Madness mix, and opposing teams don’t want them in their bracket, writes columnist @danescalona77

Five weeks ago, casual observers of the Big Ten could have been forgiven for turning their full attention away from Wisconsin. The Badgers were 1-4 in the Big Ten and free-falling in the week since longtime coach Bo Ryan announced his retirement.ss

What a difference one month makes. In the midst of a seven-game winning streak recently punctuated with a gritty road victory over Maryland, it’s time to start saying “Hello Wisconsin, our old friend.”

Maybe the players and the fan base have grown accustomed to the sight of calm, collected Greg Gard patrolling the sidelines instead of the fiery, energetic Bo Ryan. Now that good vibes are hovering over Madison once again, this changing of the Gard may not be so bad after all.

Prior to this rather surprising winning streak, Wisconsin was on its way to a predictable down year. The team lost a future Hall of Fame coach and four key contributors from last season’s National Championship game squad — three are now in the NBA.

Furthermore, they were only returning three rotation players from last season: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter.

With a period of transition underway, Badger fans might have been thrilled with an appearance in the NIT.

But, when you are a program that has enjoyed the level of sustained success as Wisconsin has, a new coach and a lack of key returning players is not enough to excuse a bad season.

Beginning Jan. 17, the current crop of Wisconsin players likely got the memo. Since then, the Badgers have reeled off seven consecutive victories over elite Big Ten teams like Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland.

Much of Wisconsin’s early-season struggles can be chalked up to Gard and his players’ lack of rhythm and familiarity. Equally, the team was struggling to find a consistent rotation and, most of all, the Badgers were still trying to locate a team identity.

It is also worth noting that Wisconsin’s rough start to the season is somewhat of a product of a difficult schedule. They currently rank seventh in the nation in strength of schedule, which included a top nonconference schedule against the likes of Oklahoma, Syracuse and Georgetown.

Thus far this season, the Badgers have lost five games by three points or less — contests that easily could have gone the other way had it been for a few plays. There is no telling how different the narrative with Wisconsin could easily be at this point.

Wisconsin’s winning streak reveals that it still can compete with any team in the conference and that its a team nobody wants in its bracket matchup.

Saturday’s matchup against Maryland is a perfect case study in why the Badgers – even with an interim head coach drawing up the plays – are such a lurking danger for both the Big Ten and the rest of the nation.

Their blueprint for flustering the Terrapins, and other teams they will presumably face, was the following: shut down the top scorer, grab offensive rebounds and dominate from beyond the arc. All three of these factors were controlled by the Badgers on Saturday.

Wisconsin held Maryland standout Melo Trimble to 1-of-14 from the field. On the other end, the Badgers grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and hit 12 3-pointers while allowing only five triples. They also received a big contribution in the form of fourth leading scorer Vitto Brown’s career-high 21 points.

Looking at the season stats, nothing about this Badger team especially sticks out with the exception of the fact that it leads the Big Ten in points allowed per game. 

If Wisconsin continues to play this way, especially with Michigan State visiting Thursday, not only will other statistical categories improve, the Badgers will maintain a legitimate shot to win either the conference regular season title or the conference tournament.

Either way, considering where this team was in mid-January, Wisconsin’s turnaround is especially surprising, though not shocking.

All of this goes to show how a competent and stable athletic department almost guarantees successful continuity from one coach to the next.

The Badgers never quite disappeared from the college basketball scene, they just took a quick break before returning to their usual tricks.

Dan is a senior in Media.

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@danescalona77ss all facts