Badgers’ Home-State Plans Become Celebration for Opposing Wisconsinites

MILWAUKEE — When the cheerleaders — each of them carrying flags spelling out W-I-S-C-O-N-S-I-N — and Bucky Badger led the Wisconsin players onto the floor Sunday night, it seemed like a prelude to a celebration of basketball in the state.

The game was played, after all, in the home arena of the N.B.A.’s reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. And with the campus in Madison only 70 miles west, the roars that greeted every Wisconsin surge — and the boos that accompanied every whistle against the Badgers — struck any notion that the Fiserv Forum was a neutral site.

It was easy to think about what was next: a caravan down the road to Chicago next weekend for the regional semifinals, with a Final Four in sight.

Those plans, though, were upended by Iowa State, which turned a 54-49 second-round N.C.A.A. tournament victory into a happy homecoming for two of its own — Iowa State Coach T.J. Otzelberger, born and bred in Milwaukee, and his freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter, from over in Racine.

“It wasn’t just like show up in Milwaukee and be excited,” Hunter said outside the Iowa State locker room. “It was show up here and win.”

For the two Wisconsinites, it was the type of victory that might be appreciated in these parts, an intense struggle that was defined by inelegant offense and whose most memorable moment came when players on both teams flopped to the floor after a loose ball like Packers linebackers diving on a fumble.

“We’re not going to apologize for aesthetically how it may look,” Otzelberger said. Nor should they: the Cyclones won as many games this weekend as they did all last season, a string of mediocrity that prompted the hiring of Otzelberger, who overhauled the roster.

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Though Otzelberger and Hunter will carry Iowa State’s colors onto the next round against Miami, which upset second-seeded Auburn on Sunday night, they will also carry the flag for the continuing basketball revolution in Wisconsin.

The state has occasionally produced N.B.A. players over the years, including Freddie Brown (nicknamed Downtown), Kurt Nimphius, Nick Van Exel, Latrell Sprewell and Caron Butler. But the talent pool has never been deeper. Ten Wisconsin natives are on N.B.A. teams, according to Pro Basketball Reference, including young players who look like mainstays: Tyrese Haliburton, Tyler Herro and Jordan Poole.

They may be joined next year by a few draft prospects: Wake Forest’s Alondes Williams, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year; Milwaukee’s Patrick Baldwin; and Michael Foster, who is playing in the G League.

The rise began a decade ago when Antonio Currie, who runs youth basketball programs in Milwaukee, began organizing tournaments that drew the top teams from the Midwest and beyond. Players in rural areas came to Milwaukee to get a taste of the city game.

“And kids inside the city had to play against kids that were disciplined and executed,” Currie said. “You play five games in a weekend against teams from Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, and over time you’re going to improve organically.”

It is surprising, then, that the state’s two flagship basketball programs have only a handful of players from the state — and even fewer from Milwaukee.

Marquette, which lost in the opening round of the tournament, has only two players from the state, one of whom is from the Milwaukee suburbs. Wisconsin has four players from the state — including the star Johnny Davis, who is from La Crosse — and has not had a scholarship player from Milwaukee on its roster since at least 2009.

“Anything could be the reason, but before you go to the reason, you have to acknowledge that it’s being done on purpose,” said Anwar Jenkins, who coaches an A.A.U. program in the city sponsored by Kevon Looney, the Golden State Warriors forward who grew up in Milwaukee. “If the reason is academically, OK. If the reason is they don’t fit your style of play, that’s it. But for you to have a team that looks like that, you went out of your way to recruit like that.”

If there was a seminal moment in the state’s basketball history, it came in 1994 when Wisconsin Green-Bay upset California — which starred Jason Kidd — in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament. Two years later, Wisconsin turned to Green Bay’s coach, Dick Bennett, to breath life into a program that had won one tournament game in 39 years.

Bennett played at Ripon College, cutting his teeth as a high school coach for a decade before moving on to Wisconsin-Stevens Point and then Green Bay.

His teams were plodding, physical and unrelenting. And in his fifth season in Madison, the Badgers reached the Final Four.

The run “put a light on the state of Wisconsin,” said Badgers Coach Greg Gard, who a year earlier was an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Platteville.

Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard during the second half of the game against Iowa State.Credit…Patrick Mcdermott/Getty Images

It was at that Division III level that Wisconsin basketball was thriving. Four state schools — Platteville, Whitewater, Oshkosh and Stevens Point — have combined to win 13 national championships since 1984. The first two were won by Dave Vander Meulen, who coached at Whitewater for 22 seasons.

Among the last players he coached was Otzelberger, a scrappy point guard without much of a jump shot. One day, as Otzelberger was working on his dribbling, his coach pulled him aside.

“He said, ‘This is your ceiling as a player — you’ve already hit it; you’re not going to get any better,’” Otzelberger said. “‘You better figure out how to make your teammates play better when you’re on the court and your opponents play worse.’ I really took that to heart.”

In that moment, Otzelberger said, he began to understand why a team needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, a principle that he carried with him as a young college assistant and as a head coach at South Dakota State, Nevada-Las Vegas and now at Iowa State.

Vander Meulen, 83 years old and the proud owner of a flip phone, sat in Fiserv Forum on Sunday night, just as he did on Friday when he watched the Badgers fend off feisty Colgate and the Cyclones sneak past Louisiana State. He played at Wisconsin and coached Otzelberger, a two-time captain for him — “I’m loyal to both of them,” Vander Meulen said — but he would be watching as a basketball connoisseur.

That surely meant keeping an eye on the point guard matchup, which might have served as a referendum on Wisconsin’s recruiting choices. Gard had obtained a commitment two years ago from Chucky Hepburn, a sturdy freshman with a sharp shot from Omaha, Neb., bypassing Hunter, a slick ballhandler and quick defender who had a tragic upbringing, losing both his parents when he was a teenager.

Hepburn’s importance was underscored by his absence. He severely twisted his ankle with 4 minutes 37 seconds left in the first half and had to be helped from the court with the Badgers ahead, 22-19. He watched the end of the game standing on crutches alongside the Wisconsin bench, his left foot in a protective boot as the Badgers, who were the best in the country protecting the ball, turned it over 17 times.

Hunter, who scored a career-high 23 points, including two late 3-pointers to clinch the win over L.S.U., had an abysmal shooting game. He made 1 of 10 shots and finished with 4 points. But he coordinated the offense, notching six rebounds, five assists and three steals — all of which led the Cyclones.

He also had a point to prove.

“They’re a capable team and have a pretty good freshman point guard,” Hunter said of Wisconsin. “But they didn’t recruit me, so I had to leave my presence and let them know you missed out on something that’s pretty good.”

A short while earlier, Hunter had gathered up a loose ball and flung it into the air as the buzzer sounded, before running over to the congregation of Iowa State fans and doing a little dance near center court — the start of a celebration that, for a couple of Cyclones, was also a happy homecoming.

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