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Rough stretch toughened Final Four-bound Badgers

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By Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 2, 2014

MADISON--The record was unblemished at 16-0.

The ranking was dizzying—No. 3 in both top-25 men’s basketball polls.

Their fans were, understandably, giddy.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s coaches understood underlying issues needed to be addressed despite the unprecedented success.

A suspect defense was No. 1 on the list, but associate head coach Greg Gard wondered about another less quantifiable area before UW suffered through a stretch of five losses in six games:

Toughness.

“I think it developed as the season progressed,” Gard said this week as UW (30-7) continued to prepare to face Kentucky (28-10) in the Final Four on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. “And I think it was the one thing, even though we were 16-0 at one point, we still needed to be (toughened) up a little bit.

“And I’ve always thought that sometimes helps toughen a team and callus a team.”

The calluses came quickly.

Porous defense led to three consecutive losses. Poor shooting contributed significantly to two more losses.

In a span of 2 weeks UW lost five of six games and appeared to some to be in a death spiral.

“Sometimes in the long run, as long as you can bounce back from it, it makes you better,” Gard said. “It’s not going to be sunshine and 70 everyday. There’s going to be some cloudy days. How do you handle those days when things aren’t going well?

“How do you come back to practice the next day? What are the dynamics of the locker room? How do the leaders respond? How do they rally the troops?

“This team I think needed a little bit of that.”

UW’s players can’t point to one moment of catharsis, one victory that sparked a turnaround that has carried them to within two victories of a national title.

Remember that UW snapped a three-game losing streak with a 72-58 victory at Purdue and then returned home to lose consecutive games against Northwestern and Ohio State.

But a solid 12-point victory at Illinois, sparked by 10-of-23 shooting from 3-point range, was the first of eight consecutive victories.

Four came on the road, including consecutive victories over Michigan and Iowa, both ranked No. 15 at the time.

“Like I said before, you can learn a lot more from losses than from wins sometimes,” redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser said. “(They) kind of wake you up a little bit.

“It wasn’t fun at the time, but I think ultimately it helped us in the end, it helped us get to this point, and we just got better.”

UW’s defense gradually improved and in four NCAA tournament games the Badgers have held opponents to 56.8 points per game, on 37.8 percent shooting.

“Mentally, that was the big thing,” Gasser said. “We’ve got a good mix of young and old guys, but to go through that, to kind of just see how you respond, how you react from some tough times, I think it helped us.”

That toughness was on display late in the victories at Michigan and Iowa. It was obvious when UW overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to defeat Oregon, 85-77, in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

OK, so that was a de facto home game for UW at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

UW’s 64-63 victory over a tough, well-coached Arizona team in the West Regional final was a de facto road game.

“We felt like we’ve been through it all this year,” Gasser said. “Getting to this point, it just helps out.”

Head coach Bo Ryan, 321-120 in 13 seasons at UW and 704-223 overall in 30 seasons, noted knowledge can be gleaned without pain.

“We didn’t get too down, and we weren’t riding sky high when we had won 16 in a row,” he said. “So our practices were the same.

“But you can learn from winning, too. You don’t just have to have bumps to learn. You can learn a lot while you’re being successful.”

Nevertheless, at 16-0 UW was like new basketball fresh out of the box. Smooth. No scuff marks. It needed to be broken in.

In Gard’s view, the team had to become more like Ryan.

“They’ve got a fighter on the sideline,” Gard said, “and they’ve taken on that personality of: ‘We’re going to fight and scrap and sometimes it’s not going to be pretty but we’re going to keep trying to find a way.’

“We’ve had to fight through some things and maybe even win ugly at times and find a way. That has been the piece that has put us over the top. This group has gotten more of a street-fighter mentality than it had.”



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