Badgers show life in the NIT tourney

Ross Litscher, Sports Editor

When Michigan State lost a 93-98 overtime thriller to Kansas State in the Sweet 16, all eight Big Ten teams that made the NCAA Tournament had been eliminated and the second weekend was just barely getting started.
In fact, the Michigan State Spartans were the only Big Ten team to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament. With Michigan and Rutgers getting bounced out of the NIT early, the Wisconsin Badgers became the last Big Ten team still playing this season and one of the final eight teams in the country still playing.
The team that couldn’t win back-to-back games for over two months rattled off three wins in a row to book a trip to the NIT Final Four in Las Vegas. These wins were not flukes either, with their first two Kohl Center opponents Bradley and Liberty, out for revenge as their NCAA Tournament hopes were taken by their own conference counterparts (Drake and Kennesaw State, respectively) who nearly pulled major upsets in the big dance.
Then came a trip to Eugene where Wisconsin faced a familiar postseason opponent from years past: the Oregon Ducks. Despite an injury- plagued year, Dana Altman always has the Ducks ready to compete, but the Badgers yet again pulled out a close victory.
Just like that, the first team out of the Big Ten tournament was the conference’s last man standing. All that stood in the way of the Badgers’ chances of an unlikely postseason trophy was the North Texas Mean Green and the UAB Blazers.
The Badgers came roaring from the opening tip against North Texas, scoring 41 first half points led by Chucky Hepburn’s 15 points, including 5 of 5 from three. Wisconsin led by 12 at halftime and seemed like they were well on their way to the title game.
Then the second half happened. Scoring 13 points in 11 minutes isn’t the worst thing in the world, but not scoring over the final nine minutes just might be, at least in the basketball world.
North Texas scored just 10 points over those nine minutes of game time, but that proved to be just enough to overcome the eight-point lead the Badgers had built with a Connor Essegian three with 9:08 left in the game.
The Mean Green didn’t even score a point over the final 2:08 of the game when they took a 56-54 lead, but Wisconsin just couldn’t get one bucket to make up the two-point deficit. Their final possession ended with nobody on Wisconsin even being able to get a shot off, which is honestly a fitting way for the 2022-23 season to end.
This season is a hard one to gauge, all of the positives and negatives seem to somehow balance out. An 11-3 record in non-conference play was impressive, but 9-12 against Big Ten opponents doesn’t get you anywhere.
Missing the big dance was very disappointing, yet the Badgers won 20 games for the 18th time in the last 21 seasons, something that not too many programs can say.
The rest of the Big Ten really can’t do too much bragging either, even Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Purdue suffered one of the most embarrassing losses that I’ve ever seen to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickenson.
We could also check in on future Big Ten members USC and UCLA, who each also lost before the Sweet 16 ended. UCLA even went on an 11-minute scoring drought in the second half against Gonzaga to boost the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight.
So, if you throw geography out the window, I guess they’ll fit in just fine in 2024.
The bright side to any disappointing end in sports is that there’s always next season. Many teams are in a worse position and Wisconsin at least remained consistent in how they competed this year.
The Badgers are still a very young team going into next season and all eyes will be on Greg Gard to see how he does in the transfer portal and whether he can get some more consistent offense out of his team.