Badgers gird for Big Ten tourney

Fans of Wisconsin basketball who are feeling spontaneous and up for a little road trip may want to take a spin over to watch the Badgers play their first game of the Big Ten postseason tournament.

It’s only a couple of hours away, if you’re driving 400 miles per hour.

New York’s Madison Square Garden is the unlikely venue for the tournament, which begins for the Badgers today with a noon game against Maryland. It’s a geographic head-scratcher stretch to begin with, with the Big Ten being a Midwest conference, and follows last year’s sparsely attended conference tournament held in Washington, D.C.

The tournament is also being played a week ahead of its normal date because the Big East plays its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden next week. The Big Ten had to condense its schedule this year to finish in time to hold its conference tournament when MSG was available. Holding the tournament out east was a move made to sweeten the lure for Maryland and Rutgers to join the now 14-team “Big Ten.”

Whoever wins the Big Ten Tournament — along with the other teams from the conference that get bids to the NCAA Tournament — will have to wait almost two weeks to play again.

There are various ways to stay sharp and prepare for big games. Not playing for almost two weeks isn’t one of them. Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament this year must maintain their competitive sharpness through the forced, inopportune down time.

It all works out, though, because as Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney said, playing the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden will extend the conference’s “brand,” and give everyone a chance to see the Big Ten in the Big Apple.

There’s no way to prove this, but it’s likely that among all of the most passionate fans of Big Ten basketball, the number of them who have fantasized about how great it would be to watch the conference extend their brand in the Big Apple is nil.

Nil is, unfortunately, also Wisconsin’s approximate chance of continuing its run of consecutive appearances at the Big Dance. The Badgers have been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999 — tied for the nation’s sixth-longest streak — where they’ve made ripples, waves and the occasional huge splash.

Three years ago the Badgers staged one of the most inspiring runs in school history, advancing to the national-championship game behind NCAA Player of the Year Frank Kaminski. They finished 36-4 after losing to Duke in the title game, but distinguished themselves as the giant-slayer by knocking off previously unbeaten Kentucky in the semifinals. The Wildcats, who finished 38-1, had seven players who declared for the NBA draft, four of whom were lottery picks.

Last year, Wisconsin upset the defending national champion, Villanova.

Ultimately, the Badgers were undone this season by the stretch between Jan. 5 and Feb. 4, when they lost eight of nine and fell to 10-15.

There was a flicker of hope that Wisconsin was primed to make a move in the conference tourney when it beat sixth-ranked Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern in succession, setting up last Sunday’s home game against No. 2 Michigan State. Despite giving the Spartans a good game, where they erased a 10-point deficit and led late in the second half, the Badgers were dominated on the boards and fell to 14-17 overall.

That means the only way they can reach .500 is to win the Big Ten Tournament, which would give them an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Otherwise, unless you win your conference tournament, finishing .500 or worse means you not only won’t get to the Big Dance; you won’t even get to the auxiliary consolation bracket known as the National Invitation Tournament.

This is a real shame, because if you make it to the Final Four of the NIT, you get to play in Madison Square Garden, where your brand will shoot through the roof.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.