Unfortunate Wisconsin men’s basketball can’t keep playing after late-season rise

A month ago, most people who follow the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team couldn’t wait for the season to end.

Now, they can’t wait for next season to start.

Despite battling through the pain of a season-ending, 63-60 loss to second-ranked Michigan State Friday in a Big Ten Conference tournament quarterfinal game at Madison Square Garden that fell just short of hand-to-hand combat, the Badgers themselves were in agreement with that notion. After an impressive eight-game finish, they’re more than ready to get started on the 2018-19 season.

“I would love to,” freshman guard Brad Davison said. “I love playing basketball.”

No one doubts that for a minute after watching Davison battle through the season with a shoulder that kept popping out (and will be surgically repaired soon). But when you’re playing as well as UW has over the last month and you look like an NCAA-caliber team even though no NCAA tournament bid will be forthcoming, everyone instinctively starts looking toward the next season. Well, as soon as the tears dry, that is.

“I honestly feel like I want to be playing tomorrow,” said sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice, who missed much of the season with a foot injury. “I’m excited for what the future holds and I know these guys are excited too.”

They should be.

Despite losing Trice and freshman guard Kobe King to injury after 10 games, finishing with a 15-18 record and becoming the first UW team to miss the NCAA tournament since 1998, the Badgers showed in their final eight games that the program is poised to regain its rightful place among the Big Ten’s best, perhaps as soon as next season.

Indeed, as Michigan State learned during two close, hard-fought wins over UW in the last week — one in Madison, one in the Big Ten tournament — the Badgers have emerged from three months of struggle bearing a strong resemblance to almost every other Badgers team since the turn of the century. In winning five of their last eight games, they dictated the tempo, played rugged team defense and put themselves in position to win at the end every time.

The long, tall Spartans were too physical for the Badgers, especially on the boards, and that was the difference in both games this week. But it was a small difference given that Michigan State has a chance to earn a No. 1 NCAA seed in eight days and UW’s season is over far earlier than usual.

“That’s a No. 1 seed and that’s three times we’ve been punch-for-punch with them,” said Davison, referencing an earlier 76-61 loss at Michigan State that was closer than the score indicated. “It’s just unfortunate that we didn’t turn it around quick enough when it was non-conference (play) and early in the Big Ten season. We know how good we are. We know we belong there. That’s what makes it sting more. If you’re losing all your games and you’re getting blown out, you get the idea you don’t belong there, but we know we belong there. And Michigan State does, too. And everyone else in the league does. We just didn’t turn it around quick enough.”

The important thing is the Badgers turned it around. UW has earned a reputation as a team that plays its best ball during the second half of the season, but due to its extreme inexperience and injuries to two of the top four guards, the timetable was disrupted this season.

In the last eight games, though, UW re-established the culture that has served it so well all these years.

“We definitely got better as the season progressed,” Pritzl said. “But if you look at the season as a whole, you can see that defensively we really started to figure it out and started clamping teams down and we stopped turning the ball over as much. Now it’s just figuring out how to really play off each other (offensively).”

The biggest question about UW’s future concerns junior center Ethan Happ, who leads the team in just about everything. Happ said Friday he will test the NBA waters but won’t make a decision on declaring for the draft until he hears what the general managers have to say.

The current mock drafts have him as a second-round pick, which he indicated might bring him back to UW for one more season. What won’t affect Happ’s decision is UW’s potential for next season.

“There’s a little bit where you think we can do some damage next year,” he said. “But it’s got to be more the feedback that I get after the combine rather than how we finished up this year.”

With or without Happ, the key to next season will be continued development of the returning players, starting with Davison, Pritzl and Khalil Iverson, who stepped up their games late in the season. Trice, King and transfer Trevor Anderson will join Davison and Pritzl in what should be a much-improved backcourt. Freshman forwards Nate Reuvers and Aleem Ford, who flashed intriguing potential at times, should come back bigger, stronger and better.

More important, all will come back more experienced.

“I think there’s no reason why we can’t be competing for a Big Ten championship next year and making a run in the NCAA tournament,” Reuvers said. “This program is known for that and that’s what we want to do.”

Heck, they’d do it tomorrow if they could.

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