The last time the State of Wisconsin failed to send a team to the NCAA Tournament was way back in 1998. This impressive streak might end this season as the Wisconsin Badgers and Marquette Golden Eagles conduct their respective rebuilds. Yet despite some ugly losses and inconsistent play, a recent resurgence from both teams is providing hope that the Badger State streak might stay intact.
The Wisconsin Badgers had one of their worst non-conference seasons in recent memory. Shocking home losses to Western Illinois and the Milwaukee Panthers put the Badgers behind the eight ball from the get-go. Consequently, the subsequent strength of their NCAA Tournament resume relies mostly on conference play. An already dire situation was made worse by a 1-4 start in the Big Ten, but since then interim coach Greg Gard has since righted the ship. The Badgers nabbed two resume-building wins against Michigan State and Indiana thanks to the emergence of forward Ethan Happ (the Big Ten steals leader) and the impressive play of Nigel Hayes.
Wisconsin is currently riding a four-game winning streak and their next two games are at the Kohl Center versus beatable opponents (Ohio State and Nebraska). Of course, Wisconsin then has a brutal stretch including games at Maryland, Michigan State, and Iowa. If the Badgers can steal one of those games and sweep their home schedule they will have a great chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
Meanwhile Marquette is an enigma. They have struggled all season to put two halves of basketball together, which – despite their youth – is hard to explain because of players like Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer. Their inconsistency was most evident last Wednesday when they allowed the Stetson Hatters to quickly trim a 26-point halftime lead to an uneasy 9-point margin. While inconsistent play is not fatal against the Stetson’s of the world, it is against teams like Seton Hall, Georgetown, and Villanova.
Marquette is a classic “If they can put everything together…” team. By virtue of playing in the Big East they have plenty of opportunities to impress the selection committee. Indeed, this happened on Saturday when they finally put together a complete effort against Butler en route to their most satisfying outing of the season. Fortunately for Marquette, two of their toughest remaining games (Providence and Villanova) will be played at the BMO Bradley Center. They must win at least one of those.
And lest I forget, the Milwaukee Panthers are a threat to win the Horizon League tournament – if not the regular season crown. Led by senior forward Matt Tiby, the Panthers are 15-7 on the season and in third place in the Horizon League. They have the talent to win their conference tournament and crash the Big Dance – just like they did in 2014. Maybe they were not such a bad loss for the Badgers after all.
The next six weeks will be a lot of fun for college basketball fans in Wisconsin. Or terribly frustrating. Either way, at this moment in time there is something to hope for. All things considered, that is a highly encouraging harbinger.