You know what? Maybe we had it all wrong.
Maybe we should’ve pitied Villanova.
In his 15th NCAA Tournament game on Thursday, Wisconsin Badgers senior Nigel Hayes did what cagey veterans do: recognize an open wound, however slim, and pour as much salt into it as you can, as often as you can. On Virginia Tech’s roster, the 6-foot-8 Hayes would likely start at center. When the smaller Hokies tried to post him up, he took the hint — 16 points, 10 rebounds, 6 offensive boards — and acted like one.
Wisconsin 84, Virginia Tech 74.
Been there. Done that.
Classmate Bronson Koenig celebrated his 15th appearance in Bracketville with career highs in points (28) and 3-point makes (8). Of the senior guard’s five second-half field goals, four came immediately after the Hokies had cut the Badgers’ lead to one possession — 3 points or fewer. Whenever it looked as if Tech — more athletic, younger Tech — would get close enough to grab the flag, Koenig would be waiting with a stiff-arm.
Badgers 84, Virginia Tech 74.
In March, you can’t fake experience.
The Big Dance is a test of nerves and poise as much as it is skill. March is the business end of the campaign, the month that separates the men from the boys. The sled goes as far and as fast as the upperclassmen pulling at the head of it. If they want to go home, you go home.
Hayes didn’t want to go home. Nor did Koenig, whose eight treys set a new single-game school record.
Not that the rose was without a whole mess of thorns. The Hokies (22-11) were quicker, especially off the dribble. When Virginia Tech wasn’t double-teaming Badgers post ace Ethan Happ (10 points, 8 boards), it was triple-teaming him. And the Hokies’ most reliable inside threat, 6-7 senior Zach LeDay, had no fear of challenging the Big Ten’s best post defender, driving into Happ — or past him — en route to a team-best 23 points.
Tech coach Buzz Williams, an old Badgers sparring partner from his Marquette days, threw the kitchen sink at Wisconsin (26-9), hoping something would stick.
In the first half, it was a matchup zone, daring the Badgers to find the holes. And Bucky might’ve been in an even bigger pickle in the first 20 minutes if it weren’t for reserve swingman Khalil Iverson.
Happ was whistled for his first foul 18 seconds into the contest and his second with 10:13 left in the first half, spending the rest of the period on the pine.
The 6-5 Iverson (11 points, 7 rebounds) stepped into the breach, taking advantage of Tech’s guard-heavy lineup by squirreling his way in for stick-backs in the paint. The Ohio native led the Badgers in the first half in rebounds (5, with 3 on the offensive end) and went to the free-throw line six times, converting four.
March likes narratives, and few people in the East Region have a heavier heart right now than Iverson. The sophomore found out shortly after the Badgers defeated Indiana in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tourney that two of his cousins had been shot and killed in Columbus, Ohio. He’d left the team for the rest of the league tournament to be with his family and rejoined them for the trip to upstate New York.
Badgers 84, Virginia Tech 74.
Circle the wagons or go home.
There’s no Option C.
They could’ve pouted. They could’ve bailed.
They could’ve taken that 8 seed, the NCAA tourney selection committee’s unconscionable shaft, and packed it in. It’s Buffalo. It’s ‘Nova. I’m cold. To hell with it.
Instead, there was unfinished business in the eyes.
Especially the weathered ones.
When the brackets were unveiled, we bemoaned the Badgers’ road, what with top-seeded Villanova lurking in the second round, a regional final sort of matchup played one weekend too early.
But if Thursday was any harbinger, whatever the Wildcats get out of Saturday, they’re going to have to earn. Twice over.