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Mike Lopresti | | March 9, 2023

Wisconsin falls early in Big Ten tournament to pause a wildly up-and-down season

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CHICAGO — Oh, Wisconsin, a veteran of so many months of March. You were never ever boring, but that likely won’t be enough.

If college basketball seasons were rated like rollercoasters, we have a strong candidate for the best thrill ride in the land. Here’s a clue: Think the NCAA tournament bubble team that was beaten 65-57 by the No. 13 seed in the Big Ten tournament Wednesday night.

Yeah, the Badgers. Now 17-14 and needing a break from the selection committee the size of Jupiter.

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Seat belts and crash helmets are required for a recap of the Wisconsin season. And here’s why:

Which team played six overtime games this season against some of the nation’s heaviest timber? Lost to Kansas, beat Marquette and went 3-3 in extra time overall. Which team had five regular season defeats since Feb. 1 that all seemed the same? By two points to Northwestern, in overtime at Nebraska, by one to Rutgers, in overtime at Michigan, by two to Purdue.

Which team has played in 20 games this season decided by five or fewer points or in overtime, the most for any major conference team in at least 14 years?

Which team went 6-12 in its last 18 games but still tipped off Wednesday with more Quad 1 wins — six — than all but 13 programs in the nation? And went 17-9 with a full lineup but 0-5 with a starter injured?

Which team was ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll when the new year began but Wednesday played the opening night in the Big Ten tournament — reserved for the bottom four places — for the first time since 2000? Which team comes from a program that has missed one NCAA tournament in the past 23, but will probably need intervention by the President or the Pope or someone to get invited come Sunday?

On, Wisconsin.

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And just when the Badgers needed a good run in the Big Ten tournament to sweet talk the committee, look what happened Wednesday night. Facing an Ohio State team that was starting four freshmen and had gone 3-15 since Jan. 1 — though had played much better lately — Wisconsin fell behind by 27 points early in the second half. The Badgers managed to cut the gap to four — this Wisconsin season never went in a straight line — but there would be no miracle comeback.

“It hurts because we knew what we were getting ourselves into," senior Tyler Wahl said afterward. “We knew what was at stake and we knew what we had to do.”

So it has gone in this confusing Wisconsin season.

“There’s been a lot of lessons that haven’t been pleasant to go through that these guys have experienced,” coach Greg Gard said Wednesday night. “I can’t say that that I didn’t see this coming in terms of just things we had to grow through. The only way you grow through it is you have to go through it. Adversity and some of those adjectives that align with that are most often the best teachers.”

In a way, this loss that probably killed their NCAA tournament chances for good was a symbol of why the Badgers ended up playing Wednesday night in the first place. Bad early, good late. Or sometimes it might have been the other way around.

“I think that’s the one thing with younger teams is the inconsistency,” Gard said. “Sometimes we change colors right within a game.

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“Today’s a good example.”

And this day they couldn’t afford it. Maybe that’s why, with their season on the line, Wisconsin’s players started the game as if they were coming out of anesthesia. Gard mentioned “some looks on some guys’ faces I haven’t seen.”

It says something about the screwball nature of this season in general and the Big Ten in particular that Wisconsin is out of the league tournament 48 hours before Northwestern even plays.

So one of the most unusual resumes in the country is now before the committee, but it may not stay on the board long. “I don’t know, I’m not a bracketologist,” Gard said of Wisconsin’s chances. The Badgers entered play Wednesday No. 78 in the NET ratings, and this result won’t help. The perennial tournament team with as many Quad 1 wins as Gonzaga and more than Houston, Duke, Virginia or Indiana may have run out of curves in the road.

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