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Wisconsin’s disappointing season ends in promising fashion

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NEW YORK — This season was the test, the year in which we learned what we needed to know about Greg Gard’s ability to captain the Wisconsin basketball program in the post-Bo Ryan era.

And while a 15-18 season is a disaster for a program that had finished top four in the Big Ten for 16 straight seasons, it’s hard to come away from their season-ending loss to No. 1 seed Michigan State as anything other than bullish on the future of the program.

In his first season with the Badgers, Gard took over in December when Ryan abruptly announced his retirement after a game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. They were 7-5 at the time and promptly lost four of their first five games in Big Ten play before Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and a roster full of Ryan’s juniors carried that team into the NCAA tournament and through to the Sweet 16.

In Gard’s first season as the full-time head coach, it was more of the same. The Badgers, led by Ryan’s seniors, won 23 games, made the Big Ten tournament title game and, once again, played their way into the Sweet 16 thanks to a win over No. 1 seed Villanova.

Under the tutelage of Ryan, Wisconsin basketball was built on a foundation of player development. They identified the guys that fit the way they played and the culture of hard work, patience and earning your playing time. You may not know the name Frank Kaminsky when he commits, but you will when he graduates. Koenig, Hayes, Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown. They were products of that program, that culture, that regime.

This year is really the first time that Wisconsin has been a team comprised of Gard’s guys, and the end result of the season was … not great. After a loss to No. 1 seed Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday afternoon, Wisconsin’s season came to an end with a 15-18 record, the below-.500 mark ensuring that missing the NCAA tournanment for the first time in 20 years won’t even end in an NIT berth.

And yet, it’s hard to look at the way that this year played out and be anything other than bullish on the Badgers moving forward.

Hear me out.

This is as young as Wisconsin has ever been. Ethan Happ is a redshirt junior, as is Khalil Iverson, but the rest of their rotation is more or less made up of underclassmen. Brevin Pritzl is a sophomore, as is D’Mitrik Trice. Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Kobe King and Nate Reuvers are freshmen. That doesn’t include Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Green Bay that, a source said, has been playing well in practices while sitting out. Barring Happ declaring for the draft — he told reporters after the game he will return is he’s not a first round pick — the Badgers are going to get everyone back next season, including Trice and King; they’ve missed the last three months through injury.

“The biggest thing that will help us is we get older and healthier,” Gard said after the game. “We have no seniors in the rotation, two guys that were out for the majority of the season. We’ve got a lot of things to get better at and grow, [because] this is the youngest we’ve been since the last time [we missed the tournament].”

Youth and inexperience doesn’t always lead to improvement, not if the young players are the roster aren’t good players or aren’t coached well enough. Put another way, there’s a reason that Rutgers is still at the bottom of the Big Ten even though they recruit freshman that turn into seniors eventually.

But that doesn’t appear that it will be the case with this Wisconsin roster for one, simple reason: They got better. At one point this season, they were 10-15 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten after losing five straight and eight out of nine. They easily could have packed this thing in, enjoyed Madison’s party scene and tried to ignore the fact that they were playing out the end of the worst season the program has had since most of the players on the roster have been alive.

Instead, they won five of their last eight games, including a pair of losses to Michigan State by a combined eight points.

“I couldn’t be more proud about how they’ve grown together,” Gard said. “There’s not a more improved team in the league, and I don’t know about across the country, but how they’ve worked together and how they’ve grown, I’m proud.”

And that’s where the optimism lies.

“This team is a microcosm of our players over the years,” Gard added. “We’ve been successful with a lot of late-bloomers. We don’t have any seniors, just a couple juniors that are playing. This team was a late-blooming team. A lot of teams would have folded up shop and quit, but this group kept persevering, battling and getting better.”

Wisconsin’s success comes from player development, and while it took longer than many in the state hoped to get there, the Badgers did, eventually.

They got better during the season, and now they’ll have eight months to continue that development arc; the offseason is, in fact, when players improve the most.

There are concerns about Wisconsin’s recruiting class, and there is no guarantee that players with a surgery in their future are going to be what they were before undergoing the knife, but the truth is that if the Badgers remain on the same course, this year will prove to be a blip in the program’s history as opposed to a new normal under Greg Gard.

And hell, it may give Gard a chance to start an NCAA tournament and Big Ten top four streak of his own.

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”