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Nigel Hayes and the Wisconsin Badgers are still fighting.

Sorry, we were wrong about Wisconsin, David Edwards ready to fill in, and … why not Wisconsin?

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Today is Monday, March 20, and this is what’s for breakfast.

Mea culpa

We were wrong about Wisconsin.

Wisconsin senior Bronson Koenig came up big in the final minutes in the Badgers upset of Villanova. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Less than three weeks ago, and with the Badgers losing for a fifth time in six games, we wrote that maybe instead of freaking out about what’s wrong with coach Greg Gard’s squad, we should consider whether the team just wasn’t very good. And that the play we’d seen through much of February was instead who these guys were: A poor-shooting, free-throw-missing mess that we had overrated coming into the year.

Maybe Nigel Hayes was just the average player so many of his critics claimed, and perhaps Bronson Koenig’s shot would never recover from a midseason slump. Was Ethan Happ’s ascension to a national Player of the Year candidate a mirage?

It all sounds so foolish now.

Since falling to Iowa on March 2, the Badgers have just one loss, falling to Michigan — one of the hottest teams in the country — in the Big Ten title game. In the other five games they’ve beaten:

  • Minnesota, the team deemed second-best team in the Big Ten by the Selection Committee
  • Indiana, an underachieving squad which had crept back into NCAA Tournament bubble talk until the Badgers beat it by 10
  • A feel-good Northwestern team that made it to the second round of the Big Dance (Wisconsin beat the Wildcats by 28)
  • A hot-shooting Virginia Tech team which had won six of eight
  • And finally the defending national champ and this season’s No. 1 overall seed in the tournament in Villanova

It’s been a run that few saw coming when those losses started piling up. But Gard told the media then that he felt all the turmoil they were going through would callous them and make them tougher when it mattered most. And it turns out, that’s exactly how it played out against the Wildcats on Saturday.

Down 7 with 5 minutes, 21 seconds to play, the Badgers could see the season slipping away — and the careers of four seniors going with it. But the Badgers, led by Hayes and Koenig, fought back and pulled off the upset of the tournament to that point.

This team, whether due to the perceived slight as a No. 8 seed or the narrative that the senior class couldn’t accomplish anything great without the likes of former teammates Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, have played with a purpose most of this month. Knowing your next game could be your last tends to do that. But it also ratchets up the pressure, which seemingly didn’t affect the Badgers on Saturday.

In fact, you could tell they welcomed it.

Hayes, according to Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal, entered the huddle before what would turn into his game-winning drive and lay-up and said, “Time to be great.” There was Koenig, running the baseline back and forth, hands out, pleading for the ball so that he could shoot a 3-pointer. These guys wanted the ball in their hands in critical times.

Whenever the season comes to an end, be it Friday against 4-seed Florida or at a later juncture, this late-season run has shown us exactly who these Badgers are: Winners, plain and simple.

Why not Wisconsin?

After Wisconsin took out Villanova on Saturday, many remarked how the East Region had opened up for second-seeded Duke to walk to another Final Four. Only problem, though, was those people forgot to tell South Carolina. The Gamecocks shocked the Blue Devils on Sunday night, scoring an astonishing 65 points in the second half to win 88-81 and advance to their first Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 64 teams.

With Duke’s dismissal, there doesn’t appear to be an overwhelming favorite left in the East, with the No. 3 seed in Baylor, the No. 4 seed in Florida, the No. 7 seed in South Carolina and the No. 8 seed in Wisconsin making up the field for the games in Madison Square Garden next weekend.

And it makes you think about a famous phrase in Wisconsin athletics history, first uttered in 1993 as former football coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez was making a push to what would turn into the school’s first Big Ten title in 31 years. In the middle of the season, with the Badgers playing surprisingly well, captain Joe Panos asked rhetorically, “Why not Wisconsin?”

So here it is, with no team looking unbeatable, we ask again: Why not Wisconsin?

Edwards ready

David Edwards is well aware of who he’s being asked to replace at left tackle in 2017 but the redshirt sophomore isn’t worried about it. No, as the Badgers held their first two practices of spring last week, the former high school quarterback looked at home on the left side of the line in the spot held by 2016 All-American and likely first-round draft pick Ryan Ramczyk.

“Not really,” Edwards said when asked if he felt any pressure having to replace a first-team All-Big Ten performer. “I think what Ryan did was unbelievable. But it’s a new year, it’s a new team. I’m just trying to be the best player I can be.”

If Edwards was simply replacing Ramczyk, it wouldn’t be nearly as big of a story around Madison. But what he’s being asked to do is move from right tackle, where he started seven games last season, to left tackle. And this comes less than a year after taking his first snap as an offensive lineman after spending his first year as a tight end.

“It’s a lot harder than I think you’d think,” Edwards admitted. “Your feet kind of change a little bit, your fits, the way you punch guys — it’s the opposite. It’s a different feel and you’ve got to get used to it.”

Edwards spent time flipping between the left and right side in fall camp last year, so he’s not a complete novice to the position. But he’s also not locked into it. Wisconsin is trying to find its five best offensive linemen, and coach Paul Chryst admitted last Tuesday that there is plenty of experimenting going on.

But if Edwards is able to solidify that spot, it gives the team very few questions to answer along an offensive line that appears on the verge of becoming the dominant unit it was for the early part of the decade.

Season ends but future is bright

When Penn State scored in double overtime of the Big Ten Hockey Tournament title game late Saturday night, it not only ended Wisconsin’s championship hopes but also its season. The Badgers needed the automatic berth that came with a tournament championship to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. But even in defeat, the first season of the Tony Granato era can only be defined as a success.

Taking over at his alma mater, Granato restored some pride and confidence in a program that had won 12 games the last two seasons combined. The Badgers were in the Big Ten regular-season race until the final weekend and came tantalizingly close to its first conference tournament title since going back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 in the old WCHA. Fans were more interested in the product as well, with attendance at the Kohl Center up 14.6 percent.

This is just the beginning for the Wisconsin program. As Granato and his lead assistants, Mark Osiecki and Don Granato, continue to recruit better and better players, the product on the ice will follow suit. If you’re a Wisconsin hockey fan, it should be nearly impossible for you not be excited about what’s to come.

Catching up

  • Wisconsin was underdog against Villanova and won. The Badgers have also opened as an underdog in their Sweet 16 game against Florida on Friday.
  • Someone went perfect for the first 39 games of the tournament and has Wisconsin winning it all.
  • Happ was not among the finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award.
  • Wisconsin women’s hockey team comes up short in its quest for the school’s first national title since 2010.