Rainbow-colored streamers fell from the rafters, and on one end of the court, a ladder was placed beneath a hoop so the Michigan Wolverines could cut down their take-home mementos from their memorable, implausible week. Not far away, Wisconsin seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes walked off the court and through a tunnel, disappointed but familiar with what happens next.
“We’ve been here before,” Koenig explained a few minutes later. “We kind of know what to expect.”
The next tournament, of course, is familiar territory for Koenig and Hayes. As freshmen, they came off the bench for a team that reached the Final Four. As sophomores, they started for a team that reached the national title game. And last year they led the Badgers into the Sweet 16. And this year — well, they’ll have to quickly shake off Sunday’s disappointing loss if they hope to make another deep run.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, struggled to get to Washington last week, but once they arrived at the Big Ten tournament, they were right at home. Michigan captured the Big Ten tournament title with an impressive 71-56 win over the Badgers.
“Winning four games in four days is incredible,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “Our message was somebody’s gonna do it, why not us?”
The Wolverines (24-11) were rewarded with a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face No. 10 Oklahoma State in the first round Friday in Indianapolis.
From the second they finally landed in Washington, they looked like a team destined to cut down Verizon Center nets. They’d survived an aborted flight — a plane that slid into a ditch during takeoff in high winds — and arrived a day late. After that, it wasn’t tough for the Wolverines to take the court against the likes of Purdue and Wisconsin and feel like they had some good fortune on their side.
The Wolverines might not enter the NCAA tournament as an obvious Final Four favorite, but Michigan has the momentum and confidence that win games this time of year.
Wisconsin (25-9) won’t take home Big Ten hardware, but it won’t be hard for Koenig and Hayes to readjust the team’s sights and begin looking farther down the road. All season, the Badgers looked like a team built for March. With Sunday’s loss, they were tabbed as a No. 8 seed and will open NCAA tournament play Thursday in Buffalo against No. 9 Virginia Tech .
“We just got to make sure we refocus, adjust for this,” said Hayes, who contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds Sunday. “We wouldn’t be the first team that could do something incredible without having a conference championship. We got to refocus, get back to what works for us, what works well.”
In the Big Ten tournament, the Badgers showed they have the right pieces, especially in their first two outings. Sunday’s game wasn’t their best, but they still outrebounded Michigan 32-25. They hit shots at times and played at a tempo they liked. Koenig led the Badgers with 15 points, though he managed only two in the second half.
The Wisconsin bench didn’t contribute a point Sunday, but coaches believe the team could be deeper than recent squads. And no one will question the experience the Badgers take into the month’s bigger tournament.
Ken Pomeroy, who with numbers paints pictures vivid enough for art galleries, has a stat called minutes continuity, a metric that measures actual experience — minutes played by a particular player that carries over from the previous season. The national average is about 50 percent. Wisconsin leads the nation with about 85 percent.
In all, Koenig and Hayes have been a part of 11 NCAA tournament wins. Not a lot of players in this year’s field can say that. They’ll enter this NCAA tournament with experience and poise that all 68 tournament coaches dream about having this time of year.
“They understand it’s one game at a time. If you don’t play well, it will only be one game,” Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard said of his squad. “I think they understand. They don’t let the outside noise or all the drama that comes with it — which obviously it’s a terrific tournament — but they do a very good job of filtering that.
“Just understanding our preparation, how we go about this next week, depending on when we play, where we go, understanding that the focus needs to be on our preparation, our opponent, and not get caught up in terms of the pomp and circumstances that comes with being in the tournament.”
The Badgers’ regular season did not end as they’d hoped. They lost five of their final seven, just missing out on a chance at the conference’s regular season title. But if nothing else, the Big Ten tournament reminded them that their true ceiling is higher. They trounced perennial power Indiana and then dismantled Northwestern, finally bound for the NCAA tournament but not without many Wisconsin-inflicted wounds. The Badgers won that semifinal game by 28 points, taking a bit of air out of one of March’s best story lines.
As seniors, Koenig and Hayes hoped another conference title would be part of their legacy. They’ll move past this tournament, well aware that a much bigger opportunity awaits.