Max Siker / Wisconsin Athletics
Assistant director of basketball operations Kyle Blackbourn (left), Jordan Hill and Bronson Koenig celebrate after besting Villanova on March 18.
By surviving the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year, the UW Badgers are making a mockery of a woefully low No. 8 seeding from the selection committee.
The UW pulled off the first major upset of the tournament on March 18 by overcoming a late seven-point deficit and knocking off defending national champion and overall top seed Villanova, 65-62. That sound you heard after the game was the cacophonous busting of brackets (including mine).
This improbable win came two days after Wisconsin went on a 10-1 run to pull out an 84-74 comeback victory over Virginia Tech in the first round. Seniors Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown refused to believe their college careers would end with an early-round ouster.
“I told these guys, ‘I don’t care where we’re seeded. We have to win six games,’” Badgers head coach Greg Gard told local media after dispensing with Villanova and securing his spot in Badgers basketball history.
In just his first full season as head coach of the Badgers, following 23 years as Bo Ryan’s faithful assistant at three different programs, Gard now has the signature win that eluded him until now, and he got it (in part) with younger players who lack tournament experience.
When Koenig and redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ ran into foul trouble, guys like freshman D’Mitrik Trice, redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl and sophomore Khalil Iverson stepped up and contributed under tremendous pressure. Regardless of how UW ends its tournament run, the long-term future offers promise.
Wisconsin (27-9) will play Florida (26-8) in an East Region semifinal at Madison Square Garden on March 24, at 8:59 p.m. (CST). The Gators advanced to the Sweet 16 by bouncing all over Virginia, 65-39.
No team other than Wisconsin has reached the Sweet 16 each of the past four years, and the Badgers beat three No. 1 seeds during that stretch (Arizona in 2014, Kentucky in 2015 and Villanova last weekend), plus No. 2 Xavier in a 2016 buzzer beater for the ages.
The road to the Final Four in Phoenix won’t get any easier between now and April 3, but the Badgers — the tournament’s second-lowest remaining seed — are right where they want to be. And right where they deserve to be.