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Wisconsin's Zak Showalter remembers what hurt the Badgers in their Sweet 16 loss last year.

Sweet 16 loss remains on Wisconsin’s mind, Big Ten looks good now, and Chris James responds to Corey Clement

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Today is Tuesday, March 21, and this is what’s for breakfast.

The biggest lesson from last season? The little things

Greg Gard has been on the bench as either the head coach or an assistant for 553 games since coming to Wisconsin in 2001. Most of them have been wins — 406 to be exact — but among the losses are some that really stick out. Consider the Badgers’ 61-56 Sweet 16 loss to Notre Dame last March as one of those that have remained fresh in Gard’s mind and, in turn, his players’ minds. And it’s at the forefront for everyone even more so now with the eighth-seeded Badgers returning to the same tournament stage Friday night to take on fourth-seeded Florida with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.

“Well, it should stay in their minds since we’ve mentioned it about every week,” Gard quipped Monday. “We’ve referred to Notre Dame more than any past opponent, I think, since I’ve been here in terms of how it ended.”

A quick review of how it ended. Wisconsin led 56-55 with 19.3 seconds left before everything went wrong. Following an Irish basket to make it 56-55, Nigel Hayes got trapped and lost the ball when he tried to step through a double-team. The Fighting Irish picked up the ball and converted an easy layup to take the lead with 14.4 seconds on the clock. After a Wisconsin missed layup and two more Notre Dame free throws, guard Bronson Koenig was bringing the ball up to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer when he got stripped — the Badgers’ 17th turnover of the night — and the Irish sealed the game from the line.

Instead of a third straight trip to the Elite Eight, the Badgers were headed home.

“Yeah, because it’s a game that we should have won,” Hayes said when asked if how they lost has stayed with him. “This was a situation we had been in many times earlier in that year. We’d handled it well. Shoot free throws at the end, keep fouling, keep making free throws. Just drag the game out another 10 minutes, we win and everything is good. We — I made a mistake (and) turned the ball over, so that’s something we have to be better at.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn and one that is still a work in progress as the Badgers prepare for the Gators.

Against top-seeded Villanova last Saturday, the Badgers kept the Wildcats in the game thanks largely to 8 turnovers in the first half that led to 12 points and 8 Villanova offensive rebounds that the reigning champs turned into another 10 points. But there was a sign of progress on the dry-erase board waiting for Gard when he got to the locker room for halftime.

“I clean (the board) off after the team goes out for the (start of the) game, and then if there’s things I need to point out at halftime or diagram some things, I do that,” Gard said. “But as I walked in … written on the board was: ‘take care of the ball and block out and rebound.’ I didn’t write it. One of the players had written it as they came in at halftime.”

That player was Hayes. He more than anyone knows what happens when you don’t take care of the little things. But it’s a message that his teammates have heard loud and clear, as well.

“We had a chance to win (the game against Notre Dame) down the stretch and collectively we just didn’t do enough to get the job done,” guard Zak Showalter said. “(Gard’s) just been on us, this group of seniors, just making sure that we’re leading and taking care of those minute details, because those are the things that matter at the end of games when you’ve got close out a team.”

Wisconsin is holding onto the ball just slightly better than it did a season ago, averaging 10.97 per game compared to 11 per game last season, Gard’s first at the helm. And now the Badgers face a Gators team that has feasted on opponents’ mistakes, forcing an average of 14.9 turnovers on the season and 28 in its first two tournament games.

“It’s all about the little stuff,” Koenig said. “Everyone wants to make basketball seem like a real complicated thing, but it’s really a pretty simple game if you take care of all the details and the fundamentals — boxing out and taking care of the ball. And that’s kind of what got us last year in the Notre Dame game.”

And it really is that simple. If Wisconsin is going to keep this season alive, it must avoid what ended the last one.

Not too shabby, Big Ten

The Big Ten took a beating during the regular season, and it left coaches throughout the conference attempting to defend the league. They apparently didn’t do a great job of it, because the lack of respect Selection Sunday was quite evident in the seeding, with Purdue earning the conference’s highest at No. 4. Regular-season and Big Ten Tournament runner-up Wisconsin, and conference tournament winner Michigan, were seeded eighth and seventh, respectively.

But after watching Purdue advance, the Badgers take down the No. 1 overall seed in Villanova, and the Wolverines eliminate second-seeded Louisville, the Big Ten has three of the 16 teams left in the tournament — tied for the most of any conference.

“(Purdue coach) Matt Painter said it best with the quote I saw,” Gard said. “(He) said, ‘Come and play in the Big Ten and see how tough it is.’”

Debating league strength is usually a waste of time considering the outdated RPI system and overused transitive property of equality gets the most run when trying to determine it. Was the Big Ten down this season? Maybe. Outside of Indiana, there weren’t a lot of marquee nonconference wins for Big Ten squads, and that’s usually where conferences get labeled — good, bad or otherwise.

But it does appear the thought that Big Ten teams were beating up on each other within the conference does hold more water now than it did last month.

“The league is pretty good, and I think we’re seeing that right now,” Gard said.

Every-down back

Corey Clement likely didn’t mean it as an insult, but that’s exactly how Chris James took it.

Clement, Wisconsin’s former workhorse in the backfield, was asked for his take on fellow running back James, a transfer from Pittsburgh who had to sit out 2016.

“I don’t necessarily see him being your first- or second-down back,” Clement said. “I think he’s definitely going to get in on a lot of pass blocking and route (running).”

When informed of Clement’s comments after Wisconsin finished up its second practice of spring last Thursday, James, who ran with the first-team offense during both sessions, sounded a bit offended.

Wisconsin’s Bradrick Shaw (7) is currently No. 2 in the running back rotation behind Chris James. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

“I really don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Corey can say that, but I know what I’m capable of,” the 218-pound James said. “I know I’m just as big as he was when he was here, and I’m younger. I don’t really let that stuff — the outside noise — get to me. I really just try to go out here and prove to myself and show the coaches what I’m capable of. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”

He’s right, but it’s clear he’s running a little hot when it comes to the idea that he’s simply a third-down back. Most have pegged him there because of how smooth he is catching the ball out of the backfield. He doesn’t want to hear that, though.

“I’m not looking to be (just) a third-down back or anything like that,” said James, who ran for ran for 690 yards in two seasons at Pitt. “I’m trying to be the starter. I know I’m capable of doing that. I trust my skills. I know the hard work I put in. And it shows.”

James definitely looked the part during fall camp, in bowl practices and again so far in the spring. He’s going to get his chance to be the starter and likely prove Clement wrong when it comes to his ability to take the pounding college running backs do when they play all three downs.

Sophomore Bradrick Shaw will have a role, too, but James appears to be the front-runner to take the lion’s share of the reps left behind by Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.

Catching up