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Wisconsin goes back to the old ways and gets back to winning

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Gard: 'We took a huge step forward tonight' (2:07)

Wisconsin coach Greg Gard assesses his team's performance in a 70-57 win over No. 2 Maryland and how getting Vitto Brown into a comfort zone has boosted his productivity. (2:07)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It didn't feel good. The ball didn't move. Players didn't move. Defenders didn't move.

It was November, and then December, and the Badgers weren't running an offense. They were running plays.

These plays were familiar, of course. After decades of running his homemade stew of motion offense he dubbed the Swing, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan realized the scoring superiority his players now possessed and reduced the Swing to a mere framework in 2013-14. He installed simple ball screens and isolation post-ups -- the kind of things you run when you know your guys can't be stopped one-on-one.

The result? Two Final Fours, one national championship appearance, a Big Ten title sweep and a unanimous player of the year in forward Frank Kaminsky III.

In November and December, these Badgers were still running those plays. Except these Badgers weren't those Badgers, and those plays weren't producing moments of Kaminsky brilliance or sweet Sam Dekker dunks, but instead exposed a broken offensive team, stagnant and stuck, watching its season slip away.

Then a funny thing happened: Wisconsin got back to playing Bo Ryan basketball -- after Ryan retired.

Interim coach Greg Gard, in his first decision as head coach, dusted off the Swing. And, gradually, Wisconsin laid the groundwork for its remarkable run of current success -- which culminated in massive fashion with Saturday's 70-57 win at No. 2 Maryland.

"This group has grown so much together over the last eight to nine weeks," Gard said. "We've grown as much off the court as you've seen improvement on the court. That's a huge reason why we're able to do something like this. Seven, eight weeks ago, there was no way this group had a maturity level enough to be able to come in here and stick together and do this."

The Badgers' victory over the heavily favored Terrapins -- at Maryland, in front of a raucous crowd in convincing, end-to-end fashion -- marked their seventh win in a row in Big Ten play. That span began with a home win over Michigan State on Jan. 17, and included an overtime victory over Indiana.

Once 1-4 in the league and 9-9 overall, the Badgers are now 16-9 and 8-4 in conference, just two wins behind league leaders Iowa and Indiana, and just a half game out of fourth place -- where they famously finished at or better in every one of Ryan's seasons.

Once headed toward the NIT, the Badgers' win on Saturday night was their boldest statement yet that they are not to be excluded from the NCAA tournament -- a contest in which every one of Ryan's UW teams participated.

The why all leads back to Gard's assessment in December that this team couldn't play like the brilliant Badgers who came two seasons before. This team needed more structure, more passing, more forced movement. This would mean a drastic teardown of everything his team had worked on for months.

"You wouldn't do that with a a junior-high team, let alone at this level," Gard told reporters earlier this week.

So be it.

"I think it's just [about] staying true to who you are," Gard said Saturday. "That's what I went back to in late December, going back to the Swing.

"I had been with [Ryan] for 23 years. I saw a lot of wins over the time, [spent a lot of time] watching teams grow. What was going to make us good if we continued to improve? I thought that, offensively, was one thing [we could do]."

He was right. The Badgers scored more than one point per possession in just one of their first nine losses -- the season-opening shocker to Western Illinois on Nov. 13. The other eight defeats, whether close or in blowout fashion, reliably featured some of the worst, most stagnant offense in recent Wisconsin history. Guard Bronson Koenig found himself dribbling out the clock; forward Nigel Hayes was frequently doubled. The supporting pieces -- mostly new faces or spot reserves from 2015-16 -- not only weren't as skilled as their predecessors but weren't used to the intuitive read-and-react style that made those predecessors so great.

In their seven straight wins since, the Badgers have scored 1.13 points per trip. On Saturday, on the road against the Big Ten's best per-possession defense, Wisconsin averaged 1.11.

Saturday's victory was a perfect display of the benefits that Gard's decision has wrought. Maryland's own offensive woes -- particularly in the first half -- played a major role in the outcome, but Wisconsin's own offensive success was what sealed the margin. In the first half, the Terps' turnovers and poor shooting (including a 1-for-14 night from guard Melo Trimble) was one aspect of the 29-7 run on which the Badgers ended the half; Wisconsin's own 1.2 points-per-trip effort was the other.

The Terps emerged from the locker room determined to change the trajectory of the game. They came close numerous times. But whenever the lead shrank below double digits -- it was as low as six midway through the second half -- Wisconsin would answer with yet another huge play on the offensive end. The buckets came from everywhere: from Koenig and Hayes, as expected, but also from Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown.

"The Swing has helped us for sure," said Brown, who had a career-high 21 points and shot 3-of-6 from 3. "A lot of times [in nonconference] we got stagnant, we just watched the ball. Now we're all moving, and we're all engaged."

The rotation is deeper. The touches are spread more evenly. The ball is moving. Players are moving. Defenders are moving, and not always where they'd prefer.

The basketball feels good now. Wisconsin can feel the differences, can feel itself improving, in both the "little things," as Brown said -- a snapped reverse pass leading to an open 3, a smart secondary break flowing into a back-side post-cut -- and the big.

"There's one really obvious thing," Brown said. "We're winning."

They are. Just as they always have. The old coach might be gone, but the old ways -- and after Saturday, the old Wisconsin it seems -- remain.