UW seniors know what's at stake
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Zak Showalter has experienced the zenith and nadir of the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin's fifth-year senior guard was a key reserve on the UW team that reached the 2015 national title game before falling to Duke.
He also was a freshman on the team that was seeded No. 5 but suffered a humiliating 57-46 loss to No. 12 Mississippi in its first game.
“I think I personally have appreciated the Final Four runs a little bit more because I saw the other side of things,” Showalter said Wednesday as the eighth-seeded Badgers prepared to face ninth-seeded Virginia Tech in the first round of the East Regional tonight. “It goes from so much excitement about getting to the NCAA Tournament to nothing so fast.
“Losing your first game, you don't even want to consider that.”
UW's senior class—Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Showalter—is set to take the court for what could be its final time together when the Badgers (25-9) face the Hokies (22-10) at approximately 8:40 p.m. at KeyBank Center.
“They walked into two Final Fours, which was kind of utopia,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “And they've had to learn now to grind and work and strain through some things and handle some adversity.
“They've seen both ends of the spectrum.”
Showalter, who played a total of 147 minutes as a walk-on in 2012-'13, decided to redshirt the next season. Brown played only 44 minutes on that team, but Hayes and Koenig were key reserves as UW reached the Final Four for the first time under Bo Ryan before losing to Kentucky.
Hayes moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and became an inside-outside threat. Koenig took over as the starting point guard after Traevon Jackson suffered a broken foot in the 17th game of the season, giving UW another perimeter threat. Showalter's play in the Elite Eight against North Carolina helped keep alive UW's run to the national title game.
All four players were key contributors last season as UW overcame a 7-5 start and the sudden departure of Ryan after a victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 15.
Gard took over, revamped the offense and bench rotation and, after a 1-4 start in Big Ten play, UW recovered to finish 12-6. Koenig's back-to-back three-pointers in the final 11.7 seconds gave UW a stunning 66-63 victory over second-seeded Xavier and a berth in the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season and fifth time in the last six seasons.
No other program in the nation has enjoyed that run.
“I hate to sound cliché but I can still remember our first tournament,” Brown said. “It really doesn't feel like that long ago. …
“I think we'll go down in the minds of fans as one of the better classes to come through this place. … At the end of the day, we can be proud of some of the things we've done.”
Hayes enters his final NCAA Tournament having played in all 147 games and 4,334 minutes, both marks No. 2 in program history behind Josh Gasser (148/4,774). He has been a part of 113 victories, the No. 3 mark in program history behind Gasser (117) and Frank Kaminsky (114). He is the No. 4 scorer in program history (1,800 points) and is one of only two players in Big Ten history with at least 1,800 points, 700 rebounds and 300 assists. The first was Steve Smith of Michigan State.
“I'm sure his legacy will be intact when all is said and done,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said.
Koenig, who has played in 145 games, will leave as UW's most prolific three-point shooter. He has a program-record 256 and in the last two seasons is 34 of 66 (51.5%) in the last five minutes of regulation/overtime games.
Showalter has developed into a complementary scorer, shooting 39.7% from three-point range this season and a member of the all-Big Ten defensive team.
“Personally,” redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ said, “it's with a group of seniors I'm definitely going to miss next year. And I don't want it to be my last game with them tomorrow, or even this week, so we want to continue to play.”