After barely losing to Notre Dame in last year’s Sweet 16 as a seven seed, it appeared Wisconsin had everything lined up to make its third Final Four appearance in four years the following season. After all, the team returned 99% of its minutes from the prior season and entered the season as the Big Ten’s preseason favorite.
While the Badgers displayed a lot of resilience this season, let’s reflect on the 2016-’17 season and see if Wisconsin satisfied the team’s expectations.
Greg Gard’s crew returned all five of its starters from the 2015-’16 season and almost the entirety of its bench. As such, Wisconsin was ranked ninth to enter the season and, without a doubt, had the highest expectations of any team in the Big Ten.
On top of that, Nigel Hayes was selected as the preseason conference player of the year and the Badgers were picked to finish first in the Big Ten by USA Today, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated.
Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown, and Hayes had already played on two Final Four teams as underclassmen. Most of those predicting how the 2016-’17 season would play out expected nothing less than a deep NCAA Tournament from the Badgers’ starters during their senior campaigns.
In short, the Badgers looked like the Big Ten’s best team, at least on paper.
Regular Season Play
Although Wisconsin lost two of its three non-conference games against ranked opponents, the Badgers fulfilled their high expectations for the first two thirds of the season. Wisconsin won 21 of its first 24 games and were ranked seventh in the nation on February 6.
However, it was in early February that the Badgers began to hit a wall and struggle significantly. Wisconsin ran into some major offensive woes and lost six of its 10 final games before the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers’ utter collapse in the final month or so of the regular season left them without a regular season or Big Ten Tournament title.
Hayes averaged less points, rebounds, and assists during his senior season than he did a year prior as a junior. The forward struggled to lead the Badgers to say the least.
Hayes barely cracked the All-Big Ten Third Team. After seemingly solving his underclassman free throw struggles as a junior, Hayes relapsed and converted 58.7 percent of his attempts from the stripe this season.
Vitto Brown’s production also noticeably declined this season. Brown scored 9.7 points per game during the 2015-’16 season. Instead of improving and averaging in double figures as a senior, Brown was a ghost and scored only 6.8 points per game this season.
After being in line to earn at least a five seed for the majority of the season, Wisconsin ended up only receiving an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament and was a popular pick to get bounced in the round of 64.
However, it was in March Madness that the Badgers proved they could play like the team everyone expected them to be before the season.
For a change, Wisconsin’s offense finally clicked on all cylinders and the Badgers survived the round of 64 with an 84-74 win over ninth-seeded Virginia Tech.
While the win over the Hokies wasn’t much more than a relief to Badger fans, their upset victory over top seed Villanova in the next round had the Bucky faithful believing again.
The Badgers exhibited on a national stage that they were capable of bouncing back and they actually could play with passion.
Wisconsin was also four seconds away from earning an overtime win in the Sweet 16 over Florida.
The Badgers were led by a three-headed monster of Hayes, Koenig and Happ.
Hayes finally played like a player of the year candidate when it mattered most. The Toledo product scored 19 points and collected eight rebounds per game in March Madness, well above his season averages.
Hayes was definitely playing with a chip on his shoulder after his abysmal performances during March Madness last season. Hayes shot 23 percent from the floor in the 2015-’16 NCAA Tournament.
Koenig was lethal during March Madness, finishing with 58 total points and a 44.4 percent clip from the floor. Happ also notched a double-double against Villanova and totaled 40 points and 27 rebounds in the three NCAA Tournament contests.
The Badgers looked great in the tournament. It’s not that Wisconsin played worse than Florida, the Gators just played better.
There is no question that Wisconsin’s run in the NCAA Tournament, that came ever so close to the Elite 8, left the impression that Wisconsin exceeded expectations this season.
While the Badgers definitely exceeded expectations in the postseason, Wisconsin still should have done more during the regular season.
Preseason predictions would have been satisfied if Wisconsin earned a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and exited no later than the Elite 8.
Though this team proved to us that they can show up come tournament time, their choking away of a Big Ten title is something we’ve seen Wisconsin teams with significantly lower expectations avoid.
It simply doesn’t make sense to say Wisconsin did everything they were asked of this year when you take into account that their supposed conference player of the year candidate significantly regressed.
Though the Badgers’ run in March Madness was impressive, by no means were they the best team in the conference for the duration of the season.