Badgers' team chemistry could be key ingredient in NCAA tournament

uw men's basketball
2011-03-16T04:45:00Z 2011-03-17T00:27:59Z Badgers' team chemistry could be key ingredient in NCAA tournamentROB SCHULTZ | rschultz@madison.com | 608-252-6487 madison.com

All the players from the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team were lifting weights Sunday when it became obvious to strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach that they still were moping over their loss to Penn State two days earlier.

Few would blame them. The Badgers never got their offense on track and lost 36-33 in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

They heard bracketologists say the loss wouldn't affect their seed much for the NCAA tournament, but it was an embarrassing performance that put the Badgers on their heels.

That is, until Hettenbach — a passionate man with a good gauge on the pulse of the team — huddled them up in the Kohl Center weight room and gave them a little fire and brimstone. He told the Badgers he thought they were going to make a deep tournament run and wanted to make sure everyone else felt the same way.

"He said, ‘If you're not setting your standards high, what are you doing? In a program like this, we believe it's time to show something in March,' " sophomore forward Jared Berggren said.

The Badgers nearly plowed down the weight room door after Hettenbach's talk and couldn't wait to start preparing for the tournament.

"We got fired up. We believe in ourselves, we got our confidence back and we're ready to play the way we can," Berggren said.

Hours later, the Badgers (23-8) learned they were the No. 4 seed in the Southeast regional with an opening game against 13th-seeded Belmont (30-4) Thursday night in Tucson, Ariz. And the loss to Penn State was behind them.

Senior forward Keaton Nankivil said Hettenbach tapped into the lifeblood of the team, which is its great chemistry among the players, coaches and staff.

"It's one of the underrated parts of the game," Nankivil said. "For our team, a lot of people say we slow it down, but we play great defense and we have that pride that will take you a long way in some of the games. You've seen it already this year, what it can kind of do to get you over the hump when you need two points, four points or coming back from 13 sort of stuff."

Or when they need to come back from tough losses to Penn State and Ohio State.

‘A pride thing'

The Badgers are recruited for how they are as students, young men, siblings and teammates as much as they are for making jump shots and driving the lane. In some cases, that's more important than whatever skills they bring to a basketball court.

It's a system that has its critics as UW has bypassed good athletes who don't measure up off the court. But the system is the biggest reason the resilient Badgers have won three Big Ten regular-season titles under UW coach Bo Ryan and have gone to the NCAA tournament in each of Ryan's 10 seasons as coach.

Nankivil called it a mentality he expects to show up Thursday night.

"We have that kind of mentality that we can win every game. That's not to be arrogant. If you feel like you're going out there fighting for your life, it's a lot harder to get things done," Nankivil said.

"We feel like we should be in position to win every game and when it starts to slip away from us, it's a pride thing. You just want to fight back and prove to yourself and everybody else that you're better than what you're showing at the time."

‘Always underestimated'

UW-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, a former player and longtime assistant coach under Ryan, believes this UW team has some of the best chemistry of any of Ryan's teams. The players are close and spend a great deal of time together.

Jeter said good chemistry makes it easier for coaches to teach and that's a big key for Ryan, who puts so much stock in player development.

Jeter added it's easy to underestimate the Badgers because they don't fit the profile the experts want to see. That has been evident this week as many experts are picking Belmont to upset the Badgers.

"So they are underrated, underappreciated. That's part of why they thrive," Jeter said. "They are always underestimated, but that's OK."

Sour taste

Jeter likes the Badgers' chances in the tournament because there are so few dominant teams.

"Anyone can win, but it's going to be the team that takes care of the basketball that has a better chance," he said. "They have the intangibles. They are comfortable playing all kinds of styles.

"Do you press them? They'll break the pressure," Jeter said. "You make them slow down and play in the half court, that's what they like to play. I think they match up well with anybody."

That may be especially true when the Badgers feel hungry and overlooked. It's what helps put the fight into a close team of good guys.

And Hettenbach helped re- instill those feelings Sunday.

"As a group, we don't like to have that bad taste in our mouths and we want to get it out as soon as possible," senior forward Jon Leuer said.

"That's when we band all together and make sure we get the job done."

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