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How Wisconsin's interim coach turned a depressing season into an NCAA Tournament bid

The Badgers are surging into the postseason thanks to a little help from Bo Ryan's successor.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Nigel Hayes stared at the ground. In a hallway outside of the visiting locker room at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, there was no mistaking his displeasure. The same Wisconsin forward who dropped words like cattywampus and zephyr in postgame press conferences and flirted with stenographers on his way to the Final Four in 2015 was "fucking pissed." His charming smile had deserted him.

"There's been people saying, ‘Nigel doesn't care because he's not emotional,'" Hayes told reporters that day. "But that's never been my M.O. Last year I was always the one even-keeled, having fun, winning games. I'm the same way now. I've never been someone to go around yelling, I try not to cuss. But if that's what it takes to get my guys to play better, then that's something I'll have to do."

Whether the onus was on Hayes or somebody else, something had to be done. Wisconsin's Jan. 12 loss at Northwestern was its third in a row, and its fourth in its last five games. It sent the Badgers tumbling to 9-9, and 1-4 in the Big Ten.

When legendary coach Bo Ryan stepped down on Dec. 15, things hadn't been going too well. Losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee headlined a deflating first month of the Badgers' season. Under longtime Ryan assistant and interim head coach Greg Gard, they weren't getting much better.

So in the locker room on that Tuesday night in Evanston, with only players present, Hayes delivered a message to his team. "It's come to a point where you have to be embarrassed to walk out on that court now," he said. "People are saying we're not gonna make the tournament; we're not good ... You have to have pride." His words were met with silence.

But if the past six weeks are any indication, those words hit home. With the stoic Gard in charge, and with Hayes leading the way, the Badgers have rattled off 10 wins in their last 11 tries. The run includes a takedown of arguably the nation's best team, an overtime triumph over the Big Ten's leader, and two road victories over top-10 foes.

How have they done it?

Defense, Wisconsin Basketball

Wisconsin has combined classic Bo Ryan principles with a newfound peskiness. The Badgers still pride themselves on cutting off driving lanes, closing out hard beyond 20 feet, and baiting teams into long twos. Heading into the weekend, their opponents had taken 35 percent of their shots from between six and 20 feet away from the basket, tied for the fifth-highest such rate of the 100 teams tracked by Shot Analytics.

Under Gard, however, Wisconsin has also been selectively aggressive.

Ryan's defenses often ranked toward the bottom of Division I in turnover percentage. His Final Four teams of 2014 and 2015 ranked 325th and 334th respectively. They resisted the temptation to jump into passing lanes, and instead built a wall around the lane.

But Gard's Wisconsin defense leads the Big Ten in turnover percentage during conference play. The Badgers force more than one turnover for every five possessions. They coerced No. 8 Iowa into 14 Wednesday night in their upset, and Jordan Hill's theft was emblematic of the recent defensive shift:

More important than the steals, though, is the fact that Gard's Badgers have gotten back to playing Wisconsin basketball. As Hayes said after the Northwestern game, "the things we're having trouble with are not things that jump out and say, ‘we need help, or we need talent' —€” yada yada, whatever. It's just simple things that we have to take pride in."

Wisconsin always had the personnel to play their style under Ryan without four- and five-star athletes. That's what the Badgers have done, holding all but one opponent under their per-possession scoring average on this 11-game run.

Vitto, Happ and the Swing

The story of Wisconsin's offensive improvement has been the coinciding rise of the Swing offense and a few players who have thrived within it. Ryan had gotten away from his famed offense while still on the job, but Gard has re-instituted it, and it has brought out the best in junior Vitto Brown and freshman Ethan Happ.

Brown was used sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, but the 6'8 forward has come into his own under Gard. His offensive rating in conference play is 11.1 points higher than his overall season mark. He's cut down on turnovers. His effective field goal percentage his risen from 42 percent in November and December to 56 percent in January and February.

In Wisconsin's three wins at the start of February against Ohio State, Nebraska and Maryland, Brown spearheaded Wisconsin's attack. He knocked down seven of his 11 three-pointers, went 12-for-18 from inside the arc, and scored 51 total points. Sunday night against Michigan, he hit four of his six three-pointers. Brown has given Wisconsin yet another floor-spreading weapon.

Happ doesn't precisely fit the mold of past Wisconsin big men like Frank Kaminsky, Jared Berggren or Jon Leuer. He hadn't attempted a three-pointer all year until an end-of-half heave against Michigan, and, per Shot Analytics, has only made three shots outside the paint all season.


What Happ can do, however, is act as a playmaker. One feature of the Swing is interchangeability, meaning all five players on the court have to be comfortable with the ball in all five positions of the four-around-one offense. Happ is just that. In addition to his ability to maneuver his way around and through contact at the rim, Happ can take less-mobile centers off the dribble:

One play from the Michigan game nearly perfectly sums up the development of the two, and, as a result, Wisconsin's offense:

With Happ and Brown complementing Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin's offense has become increasingly efficient under Gard, scoring at least a point per possession in each of the 10 wins.

In a span of just six weeks, Wisconsin has gone from NCAA Tournament afterthought to bubble team, to now firmly "in" the field, and second in the Big Ten standings. As of Sunday morning, the Badgers were projected as a 7-seed by Bracket Matrix. If recent performances are any indication, they'll continue to rise.

Wisconsin hasn't just recovered from its early-season plight. The Badgers are playing better basketball than many preseason prognosticators ever expected them to in this campaign post-Dekker and Kaminsky, and might as well be carrying a "Warning: Danger" sign with them into March.