MADISON | A year ago at this time, the Wisconsin basketball team was struggling. Like, really struggling. Having to replace five members from back-to-back Final Four teams will do that. Add in the uncertainty around coach Bo Ryan’s status, and the losses to Western Illinois, Georgetown and UW-Milwaukee begin to make sense. By the time they met Marquette in Madison on Dec. 12, the Badgers had already suffered as many losses (4) as they had the entire season before.
“We were pretty disorganized,” senior Bronson Koenig said of what the team was like at this time last year. “We didn’t really have an identity at that time. It was early. We held the ball a lot. We did a lot of one-on-one. We didn’t move the ball.”
And that resulted in a 57-55 loss to the Golden Eagles at the Kohl Center. Afterwards, Marquette’s freshman star Henry Ellenson said they came to town looking to show everyone that they were the best team in the state, and that’s what they did. It was hard to argue with him at the time. With the Badgers running an offense designed for talent they didn’t have, lacking leadership in the locker room and guys getting frustrated by a lack of playing time, things were bad.
“We thought we were getting it back on track,” guard Zak Showalter said of a win at Syracuse that preceded the back-to-back losses to Milwaukee and Marquette. “(But) we were still clearly struggling. Still took a while to get the ship righted.”
Three days after the Marquette game, and following a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Ryan stepped down as coach, making his long-time assistant Greg Gard the interim coach. Gard implemented several strategies to turn things around, most notably going back to the “Swing” offense that Ryan had made famous, expanding the rotation and pushing for the experienced players to become leaders in the locker room and on the floor.
There were signs of progress but things didn’t hit rock bottom until a loss at Northwestern dropped them to 1-4 in Big Ten play. A frustrated Nigel Hayes lit into the team, which allowed everyone to get whatever they were thinking off their chest. It was a turning point in a season that would see Wisconsin win 11 of their next 12 games and make the NCAA tournament for an 18th straight season.
Now, just two days shy of a year since the last time the Badgers and Golden Eagles faced off, they meet again, this time in Milwaukee. And while many of the names are the same on Wisconsin’s roster, the team is much different. The 17th ranked Badgers know who they are and have an identity that mirrors some of the better teams that Ryan had in his 15 years as coach. They aren’t a finished product, but they’ve shown in the last four games — where they won by an average of 29 points — that they understand how they have to play to be successful.
Certainly, Marquette (7-2) will provide a stiff challenge. The game always seems to be close and this Golden Eagles team has plenty of weapons offensively. But it’s also an opportunity for Wisconsin to show how far they’ve come and make a statement.
“You want to have that pride of being the best team in the state,” Showalter said. “I think last year, obviously, we slipped (on) a couple in-state games, and we don’t want that to happen this year.”