Badgers showed ability to come back, win tight games in Big Ten tourney
CHICAGO — Box scores will show for eternity that Wisconsin’s basketball team captured the Big Ten tournament this weekend by doing what it has so often this season — winning with a seemingly comfortable double-digit margin. Ho hum. Move along. Nothing to see here.
Yes, Wisconsin defeated Michigan by 11 points, Purdue by 20 points and Michigan State by 11 points to win its first league tournament championship since 2008. Of course, there is no calculation for the level of effort, energy and mental toughness Badgers players required to win three games in three days by margins that were far closer than what those box scores indicate.
Wisconsin (31-3) earned the No. 1 seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament and will play No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina (24-9) in an opening-round game at approximately 8:20 p.m. CT Friday in Omaha, Neb. From there, games figure to become much tighter with far less margin for error. And though UW has won 26 of its 31 games by double figures, players are now fully confident they can withstand the heat for any type of test they’ll see when the big dance begins.
Take, for example, Wisconsin’s stunning rally from 11 points down against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game on Sunday at the United Center. The Spartans led 57-46 with less than eight minutes remaining, and the Badgers still forced overtime, dominated the extra session by holding Michigan State scoreless and won the game 80-69.
"It’s good for us going into the tournament showing that we have, I guess you could say, the cajones to come back like we did against a good team like that," Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said.
It wasn’t the only time Wisconsin needed to piece together come-from-behind performances in the league tournament. In the Big Ten tournament quarterfinal, Wisconsin trailed by as many as nine points in the first half to Michigan but rallied to take a 31-26 halftime lead and win 71-60. And in the tournament semifinal, Purdue played exceptionally well in the first half to pull ahead 35-30 at halftime. But one quick 13-0 second-half run by Wisconsin made the difference in the Badgers’ eventual 71-51 victory.
"We’ve seen how we can play and we’ve seen how we shouldn’t play," Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. "The second halves of these games, we’ve come out with energy and really kind of dominated our opponents for stretches of the game. If we can keep that up for 40 minutes and step on someone’s throat and keep stepping down, I think we’ll be fine in the tournament."
This season, UW has established a scoring margin of plus-15.8 points against opponents, which ranks fourth in the country behind only Kentucky (20.9), Gonzaga (18.2) and Arizona (17.8). For the purpose of comparison, Kentucky has won six games by single digits, Gonzaga five games and Arizona seven.
If Wisconsin should play those teams or any others in a close game — and there almost assuredly will be at least one — confidence is high. All the Badgers need to do is look to their memorable performance in the conference tournament.
"You have to be able to execute in short clock situations and tight games," Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard said. "We played three very good teams here this weekend, and the teams we’re going to face from here until they make us hang the jerseys up are going to be good. They’re conference champions, tournament champions, teams that have had very successful years. You’re going to have to be able to execute."
Coastal Carolina talks Wisconsin: Coastal Carolina will be making its first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in program history, and the Chanticleers won three more games this season than a year ago. But for the second straight tournament, the selection committee gave Coastal Carolina a No. 16 seed — something that did not sit particularly well with players.
"It creates a lot of fire," Chanticleers guard Josh Cameron told reporters after the selection show announcement. "Yeah, it creates a lot of fire inside because they didn’t even really acknowledge us at all as far as having a chance against Wisconsin. So we definitely feel a little bit extra motivation and a little more fire inside."
A year ago, Coastal Carolina led No. 1 seed Virginia 35-30 at halftime before falling 70-59 in the opening round. And Chanticleers guard Warren Ellis said Wisconsin played with many of the same tendencies as Virginia.
"It’s a team that makes very few mistakes," Ellis said. "They just had a game where they had five fouls the whole game. They’re not a team that’s going to give you anything. We’ve got to make sure we go in there disciplined. If we do that we’ll be fine."
Wisconsin is listed as a 20-point favorite, and no 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. So, how can Coastal Carolina pull off the biggest upset of them all?
"When I watch them, I think the thing is if we can beat them in transition because they have really good half-court defense," Cameron said. "They help a lot and cover each other a lot. So I think if we can just get stops, get out in transition, get some easy buckets and some open looks, I think it’ll definitely be to our advantage."
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