Wisconsin’s time at Maui Invitational couldn’t have started much worse than it did.
Less than eight minutes into the tournament’s opening game, the Badgers trailed by 16 points to a middling Texas A&M team picked to finish 12th in the preseason SEC media poll. Worse than that, Wisconsin looked overwhelmed by a bigger, more athletic Aggies team and its swarming defense.
Yet somehow, a little more than 48 hours later, the Badgers were jumping around on the court to the tune of, well, “Jump Around” with a trophy in hand.
A young Wisconsin team grew up, as coach Greg Gard said, before our eyes this week in Las Vegas, and did so by beating three very different teams with two key ingredients: plenty of poise and Johnny Davis.
Davis had his coming-out party as one of college basketball’s best players, scoring 20 or more points in all three games with a 30-point outburst against Houston to headline the week. The sophomore, who showed flashes of brilliance in 2020-21 waiting his turn behind a large senior class, took over games with his scoring ability and also locked up opposing wings. But while Davis looks better than even some Wisconsin fans might have hoped for in his breakout sophomore campaign, it was the poise and big plays from the Badgers supporting cast that won them this tournament.
Junior Tyler Wahl has seldom been looked to as an offensive weapon in his Wisconsin career. But when the Badgers needed buckets late in today’s championship game, they often looked to Wahl operating in the post. One of the lone veterans on a young team, Wahl scored 12 second-half points on 4-of-5 shooting. His defense was also huge, blocking four shots in the second half and locking down Saint Mary’s forward Dan Fotu, who was the best player on the floor in his team’s first two games this tournament. Beyond Wahl, freshman guards Chucky Hepburn and Lorne Bowman made clutch plays this week, with Bowman giving the Badgers a huge jolt with a personal 5–0 run off the bench when they trailed by 10 midway through the second half. There was a resilience on display that made this team look like a senior-laden one rather than a group experiencing moments like this for the first half. Much of that, Gard said, seemed to tie back to Wisconsin’s togetherness.
“I think the biggest thing that this group has is just how I watched them come together and enjoy, they enjoy the game,” Gard said postgame. “They enjoy being with each other. They enjoy being a part of this program.”
That togetherness never wavered, even when the Badgers faced adversity in every game. Whether it was rallying from 16 down against the Aggies, holding on for dear life against Houston or chipping away at a double-digit second-half deficit on Wednesday, Wisconsin never folded its hand in a city known for for playing a card game or two.
“A lot of times when stuff like that happens you want to point the finger at other people or the refs or other teammates, but we didn't do any of that,” Davis said. “We stayed together.”
Tournament basketball can make or break a team, especially so early in the season. Oregon, one of the favorites in this event, was broken. It could never get anything going against Saint Mary’s Tuesday, and showed up listless and ready for a flight back to Eugene for its Wednesday game against Houston. But we saw the magic that a run of three games in three days with no true practices in between can create for a team like Wisconsin, especially a for a group that was still learning about itself. The confidence from rallying on Monday seemed to build into a fast start Tuesday, and closing the door on a top-15 team that went to the Final Four a season ago almost certainly helped the Badgers believe they could close late against a disciplined Saint Mary’s club.
Davis’s scoring ability will earn him plenty of praise, and there’s no doubt NBA scouts will be keeping a close eye on him in Madison this season. His offensive skills provide a different dimension than the Badgers have had in years. He’ll almost assuredly be the first Badger drafted since Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in 2015. The pieces around Davis are far from overwhelming, but this week’s performance shows the Badgers have enough to compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten when they play together. And after watching youngsters like Hepburn, Bowman and sophomore big man Steven Crowl all week, it’s evident the core of this team will only continue to get better. These are clear building blocks for Gard in Madison, ones he saw something in from the time they first got together as a team in the aftermath of a relatively disappointing 2020-21 season. And beyond talent, what Gard saw early on: chemistry.
“We had a collective togetherness about us,” Gard said of those early days.
That togetherness shone through more than anything this week. Wisconsin wasn’t the most talented team in this field and I’m not sure it’s all that close. But they were the most “together” team in at the Maui Invitational, and the combination of that unique quality with a truly special star in Davis was all it took to leave the Badgers and their fans jumping when the final buzzer sounded.
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