No. 24 Wisconsin takes momentum to Big Ten tourney
MADISON, Wis. (AP) Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig hit big shots from the 3-point arc, teammates hustled for rebounds and the Badgers played lights-out defense.
It was just one half of play, but the way that 24th-ranked Wisconsin closed out streaking Minnesota in the regular-season finale offered a reminder of just how good this senior-laden squad could be in the NCAA Tournament.
First, Wisconsin (23-8) needs to carry over momentum into the Big Ten Tournament this weekend in Washington. The second-seeded Badgers open play on Friday.
''I definitely think there is some unfinished business we have,'' Koenig said. Wisconsin had three days of practice this week to build on a win that ended a few weeks of frustration, having lost five of its previous six games.
A lock to make the NCAAs, Wisconsin likely needs to get to at least get to the Big Ten title game on Sunday for a chance to get a top-four seed. That might make it easier for the selection committee to place the Badgers close to home in Milwaukee for first- and second-round tournament games next week.
The seniors are used to the spotlight. Forward Nigel Hayes and Koenig in particular played important roles on teams that went to consecutive Final Fours in 2014 and 2015.
''Hopefully we'll keep growing and now they have a better picture of who we are and how much fun it is when things go our way,'' coach Greg Gard said.
Wisconsin had cruised through most of the first several weeks of Big Ten play before Koenig hurt his left calf in a 27-point win on Jan. 24 against Penn State. The injury nagged the Badgers' best clutch shooter for much of the next month.
Ethan Happ has developed into one of the best big men in the country. But opponents started to double him more in the post during the same stretch, and the Badgers are still adjusting to that wrinkle.
Hayes has missed a few practices of late with a groin injury. Senior Vitto Brown, another capable shooter on the outside, was also bothered in late January by a knee injury.
The offense has bogged down at times. Defense, a season-long strength, became an issue in losses at Ohio State and Michigan State in late February .
The struggles made the 17-point win over Minnesota sweet for Wisconsin seniors in their final home game. The Badgers outscored Minnesota 39-20 in the second half.
''We haven't finished halves well,'' senior guard Zak Showalter said. ''Hopefully this will be a momentum game for us moving forward.''
Foul shooting remains an issue. But there were other signs that started showing before the Minnesota game that the Badgers were beginning to emerge from their rough patch.
Showalter, a defensive sparkplug, has hit open 3s. Showalter was 7 of 14 from the arc over his last three games.
Happ is making quicker decisions out of the double team, and remains a force on defense. Hayes seems to be focusing more on driving the lane and drawing fouls. Having a confident Koenig hitting from the 3-point line should force defenses to think twice about doubling Happ and Hayes.
''I think Koenig's injury impacted (the team's offensive struggles) to a degree. We lost some rhythm offensively when he was hobbled a little bit,'' Gard said. ''Now he's back to normal.''
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