By Andrew Kahn
National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, fellow first-round draft pick Sam Dekker, and other key players are gone, but the Badger train keeps rolling. Since Bo Ryan took over in 2001, Wisconsin has finished no worse than fourth in the Big Ten, and the streak continued this season as the Badgers ended in a four-way tie for third. They’ll play Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament. How did they get there?
Preseason expectation: Nobody knew what to expect from the Badgers entering the season. Could complementary players from the program’s consecutive trips to the Final Four step into starring roles? Would Bo Ryan’s situation—he’d announced his retirement in June but later decided he’d stay—be a distraction? Wisconsin was 17 in the major preseason polls and while the Big Ten didn’t have an official preseason poll, most pundits placed the Badgers fifth or sixth.
November 13: Wisconsin is stunned at home by Western Illinois, 69-67, in the season opener. Bronson Koenig missed a short jumper at the buzzer. Western Illinois shoots 54 percent to Wisconsin’s 35 percent. The loss only looks worse in hindsight as the Leathernecks finished 3-13 in the Summit League.
December 15: Ryan announces his retirement following a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Longtime assistant Greg Gard is promoted to interim head coach. While an in-season retirement is rare, it’s a ploy on Ryan’s part to help Gard get the job permanently. Plus, there are eight days before the Badgers’ next game. Gard isn’t stepping into a perfect situation: Wisconsin is 7-5 following wins over VCU and Syracuse and home losses to Marquette and Milwaukee.
December 23: Gard wins his debut over Green Bay, but it isn’t easy. The Badgers built a 30-point lead with less than 13 minutes left but Green Bay cuts it to three with 1:45 to go. Wisconsin hangs on, 84-79.
January 17: At 1-4 in the Big Ten (with the lone win over lowly Rutgers), Wisconsin doesn’t look like an NCAA Tournament team, though the Badgers are competitive in the losses. With No. 4 Michigan State coming to town, Wisconsin desperately needs a win. They get it, 77-76, thanks to Ethan Happ’s lay-up with 10 seconds left. Koenig scores 27 points and Nigel Hayes has 25.
January 26: The close losses from earlier in the season are starting to become close wins for the Badgers, as they beat eventual league champion Indiana 82-79 in overtime. Happ scores 25, his second straight 20-plus-point output.
March 2: On its own, a win over Minnesota is not worth commemorating. But this is the Badgers’ 11th win in 12 games, making them 12-5 in the Big Ten after the rough start. The only loss during the span is at Michigan State and the run includes road victories against Maryland and Iowa.
March 7: Citing not just wins and losses but player development and his ability to make adjustments, athletic director Barry Alvarez removes Gard’s interim tag and signs him to a five-year deal. As proof of the development, Happ is named the conference’s Freshman of the Year and Hayes makes the All-Big Ten first team.
March 10: The Badgers, the 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, are bounced in their first game, a quarterfinal matchup with 11 seed Nebraska. Simply put, they couldn’t make a shot. As a team they shoot 30 percent, including just 4 for 20 from deep. Koenig and Hayes, veteran stabilizers, shoot a combined 5 for 27.
The road ahead: Wisconsin enters the NCAA Tournament having lost two in a row (they fell at Purdue to close the regular season). They are a 7 seed in the East Region and will play 10 seed Pitt on Friday in St. Louis. A win would likely mean a matchup with Xavier.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.