MADISON, Wis. – It was mid-January of the 2015-16 season and Wisconsin was in an unfamiliar place: a losing one.
The Badgers huddled in the visiting locker room after falling to Northwestern, their third loss in a row. It dropped them to 9-9, and Nigel Hayes decided he could no longer hold in what everyone was thinking: “Do you want to be the team that messes up the 16 or 17 years of going to the NCAA tournament?”
They didn’t. So they tore through the remainder of the Big Ten schedule to finish 12-6 in the conference, 22-13 overall.
In that solemn, locker-room moment, Hayes felt like a leader.
In that moment, coach Greg Gard knew he was.
“Everybody can be a leader when things are going well, but (it’s), ‘How do I lead when adversity strikes.’ ” Gard said during a news conference Monday. “That’s what both (Hayes) and Bronson (Koenig) and (Zak) Showalter and, to some extent, Vitto Brown, experienced last year.
“It wasn’t easy, and I think that’s one thing with Nigel that jumps out, is that he’s become a better leader.”
And that’s just one improvement for one player. Initial reports indicate many others, too, making this Wisconsin squad one of the most talked about in the nation. And rightfully so.
Just take a look at their roster: Wisconsin returns all five starters and its top nine scorers. That depth earned the Badgers the No. 9 spot in the preseason AP Top 25, their second-best starting ranking in school history. Add that to the countless award watch lists that Hayes, Koenig and Ethan Happ have been named to, and you get a heck of a team — one perhaps poised to live up to the preseason hype and exorcise some ghosts along the way.
The first chance comes Friday in the home opener against Central Arkansas. Last year, the Badgers dropped their season debut to Western Illinois, 69-67. It was the first time in 17 years Wisconsin started the year with a loss.
Do they still think about it? Probably. Out loud? Not according to Gard.
“We haven’t talked about it,” Gard said. “We haven’t talked about a game at all. (We have) just consistently talked about trying to get better every day.”
The game Friday at the Kohl Center will have to confirm that. But Gard assures his Badgers have already done just that.
Koenig, especially. The senior guard — a candidate for the Bob Cousy award — spent part of his summer break in Los Angeles with celebrity trainer Corey Calliet getting into the best shape of his life. Last season, Koenig averaged 13.1 points per game and shot 39 percent from 3-point range. He said we can expect every part of his game to be bigger, faster and stronger.
In a small sample size of a few scrimmages and exhibition games, it’s apparent.
“The workouts were probably the toughest of my life, and I think that’ll show when the season starts,” Koenig said at Wisconsin’s local media day in October. “My body’s feeling better than it’s ever felt.”
Other improvements include Hayes’ ball handling and Happ’s defense, as well as an overall move toward a more instinctual type of offense than the Badgers have run in the past. With their emotional growth over the past year came an increase in basketball IQ, too.
So, though the base set remains, Gard will let his team off the leash a little to make its own reads. That may look different, but Gard said fundamentally, it isn’t.
“The game doesn’t change,” he said. “You still have to be solid with the ball, take care of it, understand that you have to maximize as many possessions as possible. You don’t get many mulligans at this level in terms of wasting possessions.”
Yes, missed shots and turnovers are for the birds, but Wisconsin could get the biggest do-over of them all — a return trip to the National Championship game — come March.
Experts seem to agree. NCAA.com’s Brian Mull noted that despite not cracking the top five in preseason polls, the Badgers, along with Arizona, Indiana and Michigan, are strong candidates for a deep postseason run.
Gard said outside expectations, high as they may be, match those inside the locker room. His guys are mature enough to stay grounded amid of all the hype but hungry enough to go after what they know is attainable.
If attitude is everything, Wisconsin could be cutting down some nets.
“Team goals,” Koenig said “(are) to, first and foremost, take it day-by-day, game-by-game, but to win a Big Ten Championship and then the Big Ten tournament, then get the high seed and win a National Championship. I think our team is capable of doing that.”