MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin is headed back to the NCAA Tournament to cap a season that included a sluggish start to nonconference play and a midseason coaching change.
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After falling to 9-9 at one point this season, the Badgers (20-12) rallied in Big Ten play and played well enough to earn a No. 7 seed in the East Region and Round of 64 game Friday night against 10th-seeded Pittsburgh.
Forward Nigel Hayes said he never had a doubt that Wisconsin would return to the NCAAs.
"Of course not, no. As I told you guys for the last couple of months, couple weeks, all season that I believed in the guys, and I knew that we would be a good team," Hayes told reporters Sunday. "I told you guys there would be growing pains."
The Badgers have steadied under coach Greg Gard, who took over on an interim basis from the retired Bo Ryan in December before getting the full-time job last week.
While Wisconsin incorporated new faces into the rotation this season, leaders Hayes and guard Bronson Koenig are seasoned veterans of the Badgers’ back-to-back runs to the Final Four. Guard Zak Showalter and forward Vitto Brown came off the bench last season on a team that lost to Duke in the title game.
But this season, the Badgers are looking to rebuild momentum after losing their last two games, including a defeat to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament last week. The team practiced for about an hour on Saturday, which included a reminder that "we have to take another step forward defensively," Gard said.
"We just try not to … make too much of what’s happened in the past, understand (we’ve) got to be very good for 40 minutes on Friday," Gard said. "That’s what we’ll focus on."