Once is a mistake, but twice is a pattern. Two seasons in a row, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has finished their season in an uncharacteristic and disappointing fashion.
First, in their 2017-18 season, Wisconsin had one of their worst years in two decades. They were unable to gel and seemed uncomfortable playing with each other. A season like this threatened to end what seemed like an NCAA basketball dynasty — a consistent deep playoff threat.
Nineteen years of leadership under former Wisconsin coaches Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan transformed an often-struggling program to one that demanded respect nationally. The program, an active playoff streak and the expectations that came with both were passed to current Head Coach Greg Gard following Ryan’s retirement in 2015.
The teams coached by Bennett and Ryan shared one common accomplishment: qualifying for the end-of-season NCAA tournament.
The 19-year playoff streak was one which dominated collegiate basketball and stood close to those known particularly for their basketball excellence such as Kansas at 30 years, North Carolina at 27 and Duke at 24.
These 19 years witnessed the collegiate success of iconic players like Jordan Taylor, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. It also saw memorable moments like Ben Brust forcing overtime against Michigan with a half-court heave and beating the undefeated and widely-favored Kentucky Wildcats to advance to the 2015 National Championship.
But just before they could reach the two-decade milestone, the final buzzer rang and signaled loss for the Badgers as they fell in a tough contest to Michigan State, ending their 2018 season and, consequently, the 19-year tournament streak.
Some will make excuses and say that the 2018 Badger team was filled with young players, especially for an unconventional season filled with injuries to starters. But those who don’t make excuses saw a fundamentally different Badger program — they recognized the weaknesses that led to their downfall.
Bent, not broken
Starting point guard and then-freshman Brad Davison was an early Badger fan-favorite and passionate leader of the Wisconsin team. The Minnesota native grew up idolizing Big Ten basketball for its competitiveness, dominance in the NCAA and style of play.
Davison — the subject of an iconic photograph in which he stands bent over in remorse as Michigan State celebrated after defeating Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament — went on to write an article in a segment about the disappointing end to the Wisconsin season.
The article, “Never Again,” delves into not only Davison’s, but the team’s feelings toward the 2018 season. The article also addressed the uncertainties of the 2019 season, focusing on the unknown future of star forward Ethan Happ and his potential NBA draft bid. Most importantly, however, the article focuses on the team’s goal of never missing the NCAA tournament again.
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With emotions already running high after losing the 19-year streak, Davison wrote this piece after he suffered a gruesome shoulder injury in only the fourth game of the 2018 season.
He returned from injury wearing a black brace that kept his shoulder in place for the rest of the season. It popped out of socket eight times even with the brace. It was certainly not an easy injury to battle for an entire season, but each time he returned.
Looking back at the struggles he faced at the time, Davison spoke about his injury and the state of mind he is in now.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Davison said. “Whether it’s a practice, whether it’s a game, whenever you can go out there and play at full, 100 percent full health and do it with your teammates and with your brothers … we appreciate the little things more for sure.”
Trying to take that “nothing for granted” attitude and use it as fuel for the 2018-19 season, the rest of Davison’s article addresses the team’s disappointment in themselves following the 2017-18 season.
With the season behind them, Davison and the Badgers looked forward. They looked toward a redemption-tour schedule in the season to come, where they could reclaim victories against teams that defeated them previously, and saw it as an opportunity to make the end-of-season tournament.
“Everyone talks about the end of the NCAA tournament streak and people can spin it anyway they want, but I see it as we have an opportunity to start a new one, to be special in our own way and hopefully do something that hasn’t been done in a really long time, which is win a national championship,” Davison said in his article.
He saw two central ways to grow during the offseason: build team chemistry and use the adversity of the previous season to strive for excellence in future years.
Injuries, coupled with the loss of key seniors Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter, meant that players were shifted into unfamiliar roles. Team chemistry suffered as a result and players lacked the required camaraderie for a successful season.
“The idea is unity. Everyone has it. Everyone sees it. Everyone can share a common goal because they share a common purpose,” Davison said.
Not letting the adversity tie the Badgers down would be one of their greatest challenges moving forward.
Road to redemption
With a 19-year streak comes not only the prestige of an annual tournament berth but also the heightened expectations of fans accustomed to cheering on their team in the big dance.
Every March, teams across the country gather for Selection Sunday. Some wait in anticipation, looking to see whether they will be ranked first- or second-seed; others wait nervously to see if they would realize their childhood dreams of making the NCAA tournament.
Badger fans often take the NCAA tournament for granted. Naturally, last season’s team faced criticism when they didn’t make the tournament. Doubts regarding the coaching staff and the players themselves left fans wondering what was next for the program as a whole.
While some college basketball players would see it as frustration from fans and critics that they could just brush off, Davison saw it as something else.
“I have absolutely no doubt that the adversity we faced last season will make us better in the coming one and beyond,” Davison wrote in his article. “No matter your circumstances you can always choose to be joyful, you can always choose to have a positive attitude, and you can walk around without trying to block out all the outside rah-rah that goes on with it. I think you have to use it as motivation.”
And use it as motivation they did.
Wisconsin came back in their 2018-19 season with a splash. The Badgers got out to an 11-2 start, only losing to Virginia and Marquette — two teams that proved their worthiness of a tournament berth by the end of the season. Though Marquette lost their first tournament game, Virginia advanced to the 2019 National Championship.
A small mid-season slump showed off the team’s imperfections, but Wisconsin was able to persevere by defeating the unbeaten No. 2 Michigan at the Kohl Center to start their late season campaign. The late season rally ensured a high seed for the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament and an invitation to the big dance.
“No matter your circumstances you can always choose to be joyful, you can always choose to have a positive attitude, and you can walk around without trying to block out all the outside rah-rah that goes on with it. I think you have to use it as motivation.” Brad Davison
But once again, the 2018-19 season saw something different in the team and especially in how the season ended.
The differences have left Wisconsin fans wondering what is happening to their Badgers. After the team sloughed off their mid-season slump, the remainder of their schedule looked promising and they were playing better than ever.
The team’s depth increased drastically. Their defense was one of the best in the nation, and they had arguably one of the best centers in college basketball with Ethan Happ.
Wisconsin started to see some inconsistency in their final regular season game against Ohio State. Concerns ran rampant after the Badgers nearly blew a large lead, even though they left Columbus victorious.
Davison, regarded as one of the team’s all-around leaders who especially excels defensively, talked about the 20-point comeback allowed by the Badger defense.
“There are some things we can clean up defensively, transition defensively for sure, but I think if we clean up some things offensively that will take care of it as well,” Davison said.
While some aspects of the Badgers’ game did improve, other important statistics stayed low — including free throw percentage and uncharacteristic turnovers.
Though inconsistent at times, the Badgers nabbed the four seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which earned them a double-bye from the opening rounds. They would eventually lose to the top-seeded Michigan State in the semi-final of the conference tournament. Michigan State would also go on to be a Final Four team.
These inconsistencies in Wisconsin’s game were ultimately why the team was unable to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament and remained on the team’s and the fans’ minds as the Badgers entered the NCAA Tournament as a five-seed.
With the Badgers coming back in the 2018-19 season with vengeance, they accomplished their preseason goal of returning to the end-of-year tournament. Making the tournament in itself was a success for the team after a season predicated on redemption and proving to themselves they were ready to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country. Receiving the No. 5 seed was also something for the young team to be proud of.
But any fan of March Madness knows the history of upsets that come from the five-twelve seed matchup. In 29 of the past 34 tournaments, at least one 12-seeded team has upset a five-seeded team. The logistics behind it are yet to be figured out, but it is one of the toughest matchups to play during the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin fell victim to this long-standing curse of dangerous twelve seeds, losing in the first round to 12-seed Oregon. Wisconsin hadn’t lost in the first round of the tournament since 2013, and has only done so a total of three times in the past 19 seasons, with an all-time tournament record of 38-23.
Once again, Badger fans were left curiously deprived of the long tournament run they had grown accustomed to in the last years of Ryan’s tenure as head coach. Criticism of the style of play and of the coaching staff abounded as the team heads into another long off-season discontent with how their season ended.
The team lost key seniors Khalil Iverson and Ethan Happ, so this offseason will prove tougher than last and will require adjustments in the Wisconsin program moving forward. This includes finding replacements for the lost leadership of Happ, developing distinct and productive roles for each starter, and possibly looking at ways to incorporate new and faster styles of play.
Fuel for the future
Ultimately, Wisconsin is left with that same desire to never again let the season end in disappointment, similar to how the team felt after the 2017-18 season.
Wisconsin plans to keep moving up. Whether that means they make it to the second round next season or win the National Championship, the Badgers hope to consistently deliver to their fans the deep tournament runs they clamor for.
“We’re not satisfied where we are,” Davison said. “We’re going to take things one game at a time, every win moving out and every game is a huge opportunity. Our goals remain the same. Big Ten regular season, Big Ten Tournament, and make a run at the final four, it’s always been the goal.”
He ended his article from last season with a resonating sentiment — that the team has “an opportunity to be special.”
After this year’s tournament loss, Davison took to Twitter to deliver his message.
“Pain is the Best Source of Motivation & Adversity reveals Character! We Will Be Back Stronger than Ever![sic]” Davison tweeted.
More adversity provides more fuel behind their eventual goal of making it to the finish line — the national championship.
While it’s safe to say that there is much room for Wisconsin’s improvement, after the last two seasons, it is obvious that Davison and the Badger basketball team don’t just want to keep moving up.
They want to be on top.