Badgers prepare for NCAA tourney matchup in Milwaukee

With the game so close to home, Wisconsin guard Ben Brust is hoping to have his whole family attend the Badgers' tournament matchup on Thursday. 

Michael Conroy/Michael Conroy/AP

MADISON, Wis. — No, Wisconsin didn’t win a Big Ten tournament championship and capture a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament this weekend. But for all the Badgers’ work this season, they earned a nice consolation prize anyway.

Wisconsin (26-7) garnered a No. 2 seed in the West Region and will play No. 15 seed American (20-12) at 11:40 a.m. CT on Thursday in the NCAA tournament. More importantly for Badgers fans and many of the team’s players, they’ll play that game — and a potential Round of 32 matchup with either No. 7 Oregon or No. 10 BYU — in Milwaukee, which is one of the region sites.

"We’re just excited to be in the tournament, first of all," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "Being a two seed in Milwaukee, it’s great to be playing close to home. And it just means you did something good this year. You get rewarded for what you’ve done."

Gasser’s family is from Port Washington, which is roughly 30 minutes from Milwaukee. And with six Badgers hailing from Wisconsin, three from Illinois, two from Minnesota and one from Iowa, plenty of family members should be in attendance.

That fact was not lost on Gasser, Badgers guard Ben Brust and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan on Sunday night after the NCAA tournament pairings were announced. A year ago, Wisconsin played in Kansas City, Mo., in the opening round, which is nearly 500 miles from Madison. In 2011-12, the Badgers were in Albuquerque, N.M., and they were in Tucson, Ariz., in 2010-11.

"The thing I’m really excited about is all the money on travel that our parents have spent, we’re fortunate enough to have made the tournament, like in Ben’s case, what the parents have shelled out to go see him play in the NCAA tournament," Ryan said. "Now the expense won’t be quite as much. Won’t be anywhere near as much. It’s really neat for the families. …

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"For us, it’s less expense. Great opponent. Run good stuff. Play tough defense. Just the way the tournament should be."

Added Brust, a senior: "I went to a couple of the freshmen right away, something I’m getting used to. You using your tickets? Because I just want to make sure I can get my whole family there, which is fun to have them there for this March run."

Wisconsin’s players acknowledged they knew little about their opening-round opponent in the minutes immediately following the selection show — "We’ve been scrolling through our phones a little bit," Gasser said — but American will present a stern challenge, even as a No. 15 seed.

American won the Patriot League postseason tournament, 55-36, against Boston University on Wednesday. The Eagles rank No. 7 nationally in scoring defense (58.6 points allowed per game) and didn’t allow more than 50 points in any of their three conference tournament games. Wisconsin, meanwhile, ranks 44th nationally in scoring defense (64.2 points per game).

Four players are scoring in double figures for American, led by sophomore guard Jesse Reed (13.9 points). Senior Tony Wroblicky, a 6-foot-10 center, averages 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Junior guards Darius Gardner (11.5 points) and John Schoof (11.4 points) also average double digits in scoring.

The Eagles succeed by doing many of the things well that Wisconsin does, particularly dictating pace of play and playing solid defense. American runs a Princeton-style offense under first-year coach Mike Brennan, the Patriot League’s coach of the year.

Wisconsin will have to regroup after suffering an 83-75 loss to Michigan State on Saturday in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. The Badgers fell behind by 21 points and trailed by 17 at halftime before mounting a comeback that fell short.

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Had Wisconsin beaten Michigan State and Michigan in the championship, the Badgers could have had an opportunity for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State defeated Michigan, 69-55, to take the conference tournament title.

"We’re upset we didn’t come out with a win, obviously," Gasser said. "That was one of our goals is win the Big Ten tournament. We didn’t come out with enough firepower there early on. You dig yourself that big of a hole, it’s hard to get out of.

"Today, we looked some stuff over of what we need to improve on and now it’s a brand new season. So we’ve got to keep looking forward. What happened in the past you’ve got to learn from. But at the same time, it’s in the past."

There have only been seven teams seeded No. 15 to upset a No. 2 seed since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. But three of those 15-2 upsets have occurred in the past two NCAA tournaments. Last year, Florida Gulf Coast defeated Georgetown and became the first 15 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16. In 2012, C.J. McCollum’s Lehigh team knocked off Duke, and Norfolk State narrowly edged Missouri.

Of course, the Badgers recognize past results have no bearing on Thursday’s game. And Ryan will make sure his players are focused on the task at hand.

"They wont hear it from me that we’re a two," Ryan said. "They wont hear it from me that we’re playing a 15. They won’t hear it from me that we’re in Milwaukee. My guys are pretty smart. I think they know where we’re going. I think they know what’s at stake, and you have to win more than one game. But you can’t win two without winning one.

"It’s all the same cliches that come out all the time. It won’t be because anybody is overlooked. It won’t be because they’re not prepared for it. It’s just going to be who plays the best that 40 minutes."

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