The late-game, season-ending meltdown clearly hurt. But Wisconsin can look toward a bright future once it gets over the loss to Notre Dame.
All that experience gained this year by a team without a scholarship senior could pay dividends next season.
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"So that will be something that we can definitely use for next year, the situation that they’ve been in, the amount of minutes that they’ve played and the amount of film we’ve watched," forward Nigel Hayes said after the 61-56 loss on Saturday night to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament.
"So everyone should have a better grasp on things, not only mentally. Be physically stronger, be smarter, better basketball players."
The level of expectation will depend on whether Hayes returns for his senior season.
The Badgers’ leading scorer (15.7 points) struggled during the tournament, shooting 9 of 39 (23 percent) overall and 2 of 15 from 3-point range over the three-game run that ended in the Sweet 16.
After the game, he shrugged off questions about the NBA draft. The 6-foot-8 forward said that for now he’s just trying to get the team through the loss.
Whether he’s back or not, Wisconsin appears on steadier ground than it did on Jan. 12. That’s when the Badgers (22-13) fell to 9-9 following a loss to Northwestern. A trip to the NCAAs — let alone a berth in the regional semifinals — seemed way out of reach.
"I’ll be able to reflect on that in a couple of weeks," guard Zak Showalter said. "But we weren’t satisfied with just getting here."
Other highlights and notes from 2015-16 and peeks toward next year:
ON GARD: Wisconsin went 13-4 after Greg Gard took over as the interim head coach — Bo Ryan retired following a Dec. 15 game. Athletic director Barry Alvarez was so satisfied with the results the school gave Gard the full-time gig before the start of the Big Ten Tournament.
Gard’s even-keeled attitude steadied a team shaken by Ryan’s abrupt departure. Under Gard, the Badgers tightened up on defense and played better with the ball, dusting off more of the swing offense that used to be a staple not that long ago.
EMERGING ETHAN: The emergence of 6-foot-9 forward Ethan Happ helped the Badgers establish a low-post presence. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year seems to glide around the rim for points and rebounds. He even led the league in steals. Happ heeded Gard’s call in the postseason to be more assertive in the paint. The big man needs to add a jumper to help round out his game.
BIG-TIME BRONSON: The turnovers by Hayes and Koenig at the end of the Notre Dame game were uncharacteristic mistakes in crunch time. The endearing images of this year’s NCAAs in Madison will be Koenig’s two, late-game 3s in the second round against Xavier, including the buzzer-beater from the corner that sent the Badgers to the Sweet 16. Koenig should enter his senior season next year as one of league’s top point guards and clutch shooters.
BROWN AND SHOWALTER: Showalter and forward Vitto Brown turned into trusted contributors. Brown’s emergence helped fill the void of Hayes’ shooting slump in the postseason. Showalter provided an energy boost whenever he was on the floor and epitomized the recent tradition of hard-nosed Wisconsin guards. They’ll join Koenig, and possibly Hayes, in a seasoned starting lineup.
GAINING EXPERIENCE: One of Gard’s most important moves over was expanding the bench. That allowed reserves like sophomore Jordan Hill, along with freshmen Khalil Iverson, Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen, to gain important playing time.
Two potentially key players could be added to the mix next year — 6-11 forward Andy Van Vliet, who did not play this season because of an eligibility issue; and fellow freshman Brevin Pritzl, a sharpshooting guard who played just four minutes this year because of injury.