CHICAGO — The path to the championship in the Big Ten Conference men's basketball tournament is always hazardous.
But for the University of Wisconsin, the potential path in this year's highly anticipated tournament takes hazardous to an entirely new level. Indeed, the degree of difficulty facing UW could be higher than any team has had in the 16-year history of the event.
The 22nd-ranked Badgers will open tournament play Friday with a quarterfinal game against sixth-ranked Michigan, a team they beat earlier in the season, but only after guard Ben Brust sent it into overtime with a half-court shot.
Should UW win Friday, it likely would play third-ranked Indiana, the Big Ten regular-season champion. And should UW win that semifinal game, it probably would meet eighth-ranked Michigan State or 10th-ranked Ohio State for the title.
This is the first time the Big Ten has had four teams ranked in the top 10 entering the conference tournament and, on paper anyway, UW's task looks daunting. To everyone but the Badgers, that is.
"It looks like fun to me," forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "It looks like what it's supposed to look like, especially when you're playing in the best conference, the Big Ten."
That much is true. The Big Ten has had six of its 12 teams ranked in top 10 at some point this season — and UW wasn't one of them. Yet, UW drew a first-round bye as the tournament's fourth seed.
Like most of the Big Ten's top teams, UW has had stretches of good basketball and stretches that weren't so good. The Badgers appeared to be dragging a bit in their final three games — losses to Purdue and Michigan State and a buzzer-beating victory over last-place Penn State.
Scuffling as they are, human nature suggests it would be easy for the Badgers to see their path as a death sentence for any hopes they have of winning their first Big Ten title since 2008. But where many see a quick exit for UW in Chicago, the Badgers see only opportunity.
"I think primarily it's an opportunity to go out and meet our next goal, which is win the Big Ten tournament title," forward Jared Berggren said. "Obviously, our first goal was to win the regular-season title. We came up a little short on that. Thankfully, there's more basketball to be played, there's more goals to be met. Our next goal is definitely to go out and try to win a Big Ten tournament championship. We've just got to take it one game at a time, see who we're matched up with, try to play our best basketball of the year right now and hopefully get some momentum into the NCAA tournament as well."
The extreme competitiveness of the Big Ten this season and the return of the tournament to Chicago after a five-year hiatus has generated unprecedented buzz. The conference is 10 or 11 deep in teams that, if nothing else, can be awfully hard to beat.
No one is looking at UW as the favorite, but anything can happen in such a wide-open field and the Badgers have much to gain by making a solid run.
"You can gain some momentum," Bruesewitz said. "You can gain a ring. You can go out and win the Big Ten tournament. I haven't won it since I've been here. That's one of our goals is to win the Big Ten championship regular season and we didn't take care of that. Now we've got a shot to go out and prove we can compete with these guys again. Obviously, if we win it or we do well we can help our seeding in the NCAA tournament, too."
Indeed, UW has much to play for.
No current UW player has won a Big Ten regular-season or tournament title, which doesn't sit well with seniors Berggren, Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans. This is their last chance to claim a conference title.
After averaging 72.3 points per game in a three-game winning streak, the Badgers averaged 54 over their final three games. Worse, their defense and rebounding suffered as the offensive woes mounted. A strong tournament run could give UW — and its offense — much-needed momentum for the NCAA tournament.
UW likely could improve its NCAA seeding by reaching the Big Ten final. Coach Bo Ryan said selection committee members have told him a team's performance in a conference tournament can only improve or decrease its seed by one spot. Since the bracket experts have UW projected as anywhere from a fifth to a seventh seed, a couple of wins clearly would help.
There is one more reason the Badgers hope to reach the final. Sunday is St. Patrick's Day, and Chicago, where they dye the river green on March 17, is one of the best places in the country to spend the day.
"I want to be in Chicago the whole weekend," Bruesewitz said. "It's a great place, the river is green and I'm kind of Irish, so let's get it going."
If the Badgers are still around on Sunday, they will be going down a very encouraging path.