ROSEMONT, ILL. – Hanging above the Kohl Center court, to the left of the jumbo video screen, sits a red banner listing the NCAA tournament appearances for Wisconsin basketball. Every year since 1998, the Badgers added to that banner, but it became apparent during a tumultuous 2017-18 campaign that the streak would come to an end.
When it did, Ethan Happ kept the TV in his apartment from showing anything about March Madness.
“I didn’t watch the tournament, because I was so bitter about not making it,” the Badgers senior said Thursday at Big Ten media day in suburban Chicago. “Hopefully that great failure turns into something special this season. We want to have the same culture and precedence that’s been here the last 20 years.”
College basketball didn’t register in Madison for decades — Wisconsin made no NCAA tournament appearances between 1947 and 1994 — until it mattered more than anything else. Badgers fans have trouble recalling a time when they weren’t planning on March Madness, and they suffered through every setback last season.
So did the team’s star player, Happ, who tried to carry the shorthanded Badgers by averaging 17.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. After the season, the 6-10 forward entered his name into the NBA draft. The intent was for Happ to play at the next level if he could, but he wasn’t ready. And he had some unfinished business.
“Being that leader transitioning into this year helps a lot because our team is closer,” Happ said. “You get closer to your family after traumatic events happen. The NCAA streak [ending] for us as a team was a traumatic event.”
Sophomore guard Brad Davison, a Maple Grove High School product who joined Happ at media day, talked of the players’ improved health and high expectations.
“We know we have the pieces to get back to where Wisconsin basketball is supposed to be,” Davison said. “The standard of excellence Wisconsin basketball has been the last 19-20 years. Now we have to put the pieces in place.”
Davison emerged as a key player last year, finishing second behind Happ in team scoring (12.1 ppg) and assists (2.5) as the Badgers improved. They dropped nine of 11 games early in Big Ten play, but made strides by winning three of their last four regular-season games against Purdue, the Gophers and Northwestern.
Davison, who battled through a dislocated shoulder last year, said practices have been even more competitive with players recovered from injuries. Guards Kobe King (knee) and D’Mitrik Trice (foot) both missed the last 23 games of last season.
Wisconsin took down the then-No. 6 Boilermakers last season on a February night the program honored 2014-15 national player of the year Frank Kaminsky, raising his jersey to the rafters. It might not be long until they are again adding NCAA tournament appearances to that big red banner, especially if the Badgers build off the end of last season.
“We’re all about building momentum,” Davison said. “I think that was a good foundation to see, even with the guys we had last year being banged up and guys who were out, we were able to compete with some of the best teams in the country.”