Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 14, 2016

At one point this season, an NCAA bid seemed like a long shot for Wisconsin, which was 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten after a loss at Northwestern on Jan. 12. But the Badgers, who lost to the likes of UW Milwaukee and Western Illinois early on, rallied under Greg Gard to secure an 18th consecutive trip to the Big Dance after he took over a 7-5 team following the retirement of Bo Ryan on Dec. 15. Late in the year, Gard inked a five-year deal, taking the "interim" off his title.

Wisconsin played for the national title last year and advanced to the Final Four in 2014. This year, a trip to the Sweet 16 would be impressive for a program that is in transition. The Badgers are in a bit of a funk as the NCAA tourney unfolds, losers of two in row including a confounding defeat to Nebraska in the Big Ten tourney. Can this team regain the form that saw it win 11 of 12 before that mini slump?

Get my Wisconsin NCAA capsule below.

No. 7 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 Pitt, Friday, St. Louis, East

Greg Gard?s NCAA record: First appearance

Last tourney appearance: 2015, Lost to Duke in national championship game

How I see it going: The Badgers should be able to push past Pitt in the first round. That would set up a likely meeting with No. 2 Xavier. Do the Badgers have enough to get by the Musketeers, who at one time looked poised to be a No. 1 seed? Not likely. Xavier finished second in the Big East.

Key player: Bronson Koenig. It goes without saying, guard play is critical in March. And the Badgers have a good lead guard in Koenig, who is as seasoned as they come in the NCAA tourney. The junior is a nifty distributor who understands the game and knows how to get others involved. Plus, the guy can shoot the rock and work off the dribble.

Key number: 64.6, points allowed per game by Wisconsin. That ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten behind only Michigan State. Defense is a staple in Madison, which is why the Badgers have been one of the nation?s top programs for almost two decades. That tenacity on defending its goal keeps Wisconsin in games when its shots aren?t falling.

Know Pitt: The Panthers were a .500 team in the ACC under Jamie Dixon with good wins vs. Duke, at Notre Dame and at Syracuse, a team Wisconsin also beat. The other common foe: Purdue, which beat the Badgers twice. This is a thoroughly mediocre Pitt team that finished eighth in ACC play in per-possession offense and defense. The key player Wisconsin needs to watch is Michael Young, a force who averages 16 points and seven rebounds. This is a program that has a history of chronically under performing in the Big Dance.