Undervalued Badgers excel again
Lamont Paris was skimming a media packet containing University of Wisconsin men's basketball facts and statistics Friday when one particular note caught his eye.
When the associate head coach read the Badgers were the only team in the country to advance to the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons, he shared the tidbit with fellow assistant Joe Krabbenhoft.
"We looked at each other and we just said, 'Four in a row would just be silly, wouldn't it?' " Paris said. "So we went for silly."
Better yet, the Badgers achieved "silly" with a 65-62 victory over defending champion and No. 1 seed Villanova on Saturday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. For the fourth consecutive season and sixth time in seven seasons, Wisconsin is among the final 16 teams left standing in the NCAA tournament after the opening weekend.
No other program — not Duke, not Kentucky, not North Carolina — can say that.
"It's an amazing accomplishment," Paris said.
It's one even Paris has a hard time wrapping his head around. When he arrived in Madison prior to the start of the 2010-11 season, Paris joined a highly successful program that had become a perennial Big Ten Conference contender and fixture in the NCAA tournament under Bo Ryan.
The only knock on the Badgers at the time was they hadn't made enough deep runs in March to be considered one of the great programs in the nation.
Now, Paris is nearing the end of his seventh season in Madison. Wisconsin has won 17 NCAA tournament games in that span, with six trips to the Sweet 16 and two Final Four appearances.
Wisconsin will be chasing its third trip to the Final Four in four seasons when it heads back to New York this week. The Badgers (27-9) meet Florida (26-8) in an East Region semifinal Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
"It's unbelievable," Paris said. "No matter how much you've been around basketball, I don't think it will get enough (credit). No matter who you have, no matter how many All-Americans you have, these games, they don't give these away to anybody. These guys have earned them.
"I knew coming in here there was all kind of tradition and you always want to add, see if you can add something to it. And you think, 'Well, it's been pretty good, what else can we do here?' "
Senior guard Bronson Koenig was thinking the same thing when he arrived on campus in the summer of 2013. A La Crosse, Wis., native, Koenig had watched closely as Ryan took the program to another level. But Koenig was part of a recruiting class that boldly declared the Badgers would take another step during their time in Madison.
Four seasons later, Koenig and senior forward Nigel Hayes have been on the floor for 13 NCAA tournament wins.
"I'm very proud of us as a program," said Koenig, who scored eight of his 17 points over the final 4 minutes, 21 seconds to help the Badgers complete a rally from a seven-point deficit against Villanova. "I always have been, even before I was here. I always questioned why everybody underestimated us all the time, every single year before the season, during the season. We've just got to continue to believe in ourselves."
Next up for the Badgers is fourth-seeded Florida. The Gators advanced with a 65-39 victory over fifth-seeded Virginia on Saturday night in Orlando, Fla.
Junior forward Devin Robinson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and senior forward Justin Leon (14 points, 10 rebounds) recorded double-doubles for the Gators, who also showed why they're ranked No. 3 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Opponents are shooting 40.5 percent overall and 30.4 percent from 3-point range against Florida. Virginia finished at 29.6 percent for the game and went 1-for-15 from beyond the arc.
Sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen averages a team-leading 13.4 points for the Gators, while senior guard Canyon Barry adds 11.8 points off the bench. Barry, a graduate transfer from College of Charleston, is the son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry.
Robinson chips in 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while senior guard Kasey Hill averages 9.7 points and a team-high 4.5 assists per game. Hill was a freshman when the Gators dropped a 59-53 decision to the Badgers in Madison early in the 2013-14 season.
Both teams ended that season in the Final Four, but only one can advance to the Elite Eight this time around.
Another member of Wisconsin's 2013 recruiting class, senior forward Vitto Brown, tried to put the recent run of success in March into perspective Saturday afternoon as he stood in a locker room that was covered in puddles from the team's postgame celebration.
"You can't plan how these tournaments are going to go," Brown said. "There's always a little bit of luck sprinkled in, there's always matchups and all that.
"We knew that this was probably the one where people were doubting the most, but we always had faith. We never looked at that No. 1 and said, 'Oh, man, it's over, let's pack up now.' And even in that game, when we got down, we were like, 'We don't want this to be the last one.' "
NCAA SWEET 16
East Regional Semifinals
At New York
Baylor (27-7) vs. South Carolina (24-10), 6:29 p.m. (TBS)
Wisconsin (27-9) vs. Florida (26-8), 8:59 p.m. (TBS)