Five days ago, Wisconsin was unhappy about being one of the last teams left out of the selection committee’s top 16.
Now the Badgers might be thrilled if the committee still believed they were worthy of a No. 5 seed.
Wisconsin has dropped back-to-back games for the first time this year, suffering a rare home setback against Northwestern on Sunday and following that up with a 64-58 loss at Michigan on Thursday night. The consecutive losses have erased the Badgers’ lead in the Big Ten and left them in a first-place tie with Maryland and Purdue.
Bronson Koenig’s absence due to a leg strain gave Wisconsin a convenient excuse for Thursday’s loss, yet the Badgers’ inability to generate offense without him was a major concern. Once Michigan started doubling Ethan Happ after he erupted for 18 first-half points, Wisconsin didn’t have any answers.
Nigel Hayes was surprisingly unassertive in Koenig’s absence, scoring a quiet six points on only seven shots. Freshman point guard, D’Mitrik Trice, Koenig’s replacement in the starting lineup, hoisted up 15 shots and connected on only two of them, a big reason Wisconsin shot only 38.3 percent from the field as a team.
Zak Showalter’s exceptional defense on Michigan point guard Derrick Walton helped the Badgers stay competitive, but the Wolverines found other sources capable of providing offense. Sweet-shooting big man Moritz Wagner scored a game-high 21 points and wing Zak Irvin added 18.
Wisconsin was still within striking distance down six with less than four minutes to go when Greg Gard made a curious decision to sit Happ with four fouls. The Badgers’ first possession without Happ resulted in a turnover that led to an Irvin dunk. Their second possession without Happ ended in a missed 3-pointer from Vitto Brown.
By the time Happ reentered the game with 1:48 to go, the outcome was all but sealed.
A healthy Wisconsin can still be a dangerous team in the NCAA tournament, but the Badgers desperately need some marquee wins to bolster their seeding. The best teams they’ve beaten so far this season are Minnesota, Michigan and Syracuse, none of whom are even locks to make the NCAA tournament yet.
Wisconsin will have a big chance on Sunday when it hosts Maryland in a matchup between two of the Big Ten’s three co-leaders.
If Thursday’s loss is any indication, the Badgers better hope that Koenig is back in the lineup by then.
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