Badgers’ seniors rallied troops at key time

MADISON, Wis. — They shuffled into a Kohl Center locker room in mid-December disappointed but not defeated. Wisconsin’s basketball team was only hours removed from a frustrating 60-50 loss at Marquette, but here players were, holding an impromptu meeting to air their grievances on a rare day off.

Wisconsin’s record was 6-4, and the Badgers had dropped out of the top 25. More than three months remained in the college basketball season. The Big Ten schedule hadn’t even begun. And something needed to change before the season swerved off the rails.

Badgers senior Mike Bruesewitz, who missed the Marquette game with a concussion, had organized the gathering with the backing of Wisconsin’s other seniors. It wasn’t a conference meant to point fingers at specific players. Instead, it was to determine what the team needed to do differently to achieve positive results and which players could better utilize their strengths.

“It was just we’ve got to share the ball more,” Bruesewitz recalled this week. “We’ve got to make sure we lock people down. We’re not going to outscore everybody and we’ve got to trust the coaches and make sure we stick to their plans because if we kind of stray off it, we saw what would happen, and it wasn’t a very good result.”

Players say the meeting served as a turning point in a season that now has the potential to become something special. Wisconsin (20-8, 11-4) stands just one game out of first place in the Big Ten as it prepares to play host to Purdue (13-15, 6-9) on Sunday at noon. Since the meeting, the Badgers have gone 14-4.

“I felt a turnaround after those team meetings,” Wisconsin senior J.D. Wise said. “When we all sat down, it was like open floor. No matter whether you were a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior: What’s your take? What do you think we need to do to be getting better? And I feel like it brought us closer because it took down that barrier. There were really no quarrels between people, but we needed to break down that barrier to help our team flow a little better. I honestly feel like ever since those meetings, we have been a cohesive unit.”

This is the type of senior leadership Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans has brought to the team. The three frontcourt starters will be honored on Sunday as part of senior day festivities, along with walk-ons Wise and Dan Fahey.

Not every team has players willing to speak up and stir the pot, but these Badgers were fortunate in that regard. If not for team-only meetings, who knows where they would be now?

“It was kind of a time for younger guys to grow up, for us older guys to set a better example and lead better, and we just kept working and found a way to turn things around,” Berggren said. “Now we’re in a pretty good position to close out the season.”

Among the major points of emphasis was how the team could regain its confidence. Wisconsin was still adjusting to playing with Traevon Jackson and George Marshall as point guards after the team unexpectedly lost starting point guard Josh Gasser for the season with a torn ACL on Oct. 27. Gasser stepped into the meeting and made pointed suggestions to both players about how they could better lead the team.

“I’d say probably me and Mike were two that talked the most,” Berggren said. “Josh had some things to chime in, too. Obviously with him being out with his injury, it’s tough for him to have a huge effect. He’s obviously been through the drill a few times and has some good experience. He saw some things I think especially for George and Trae, some of the younger guards, that were kind of learning and going through their struggles at the time. We just tried to be leaders.”

This season, Berggren, Bruesewitz and Evans have certainly done their part on the court. The three have combined to average 28.8 points and 19.9 rebounds. Those numbers represent 42.7 percent of the team’s scoring and 52.9 percent of the team’s rebounds.

It hasn’t been the easiest ride for any of the Badgers’ frontcourt starters during their careers. Berggren injured his right shoulder as a freshman and missed considerable time. Bruesewitz lacerated his leg in October and missed two games before his concussion forced him out of two more games in December. And Evans has endured tremendous struggles at the free throw line this season, shooting just 41.4 percent after being a career 71.1 percent free throw shooter before the season. He also sprained his right knee this week and is questionable for Sunday’s final home game.

“They’ve answered the challenge that the other seniors have over the years as far as setting a good example, working hard, persevering,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “Who’s persevered more than this group? …

“I always tell them, the next 60, 70 years, you’re going to be going through some of the same things. Maybe not the exact issues, but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. You keep working, keep doing the right things, good things will happen.”

This season offers further proof to the seniors that possessing the right attitude — and a willingness to challenge the status quo — can result in something memorable.

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