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How the change from cardboard cutouts to cheering fans is propelling the Wisconsin men’s basketball team

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UW's Steven Crowl defends Marquette's Greg Elliott during the first half Saturday at the Kohl Center. Crowl scored 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting and had eight rebounds.

Brad Davison always has loved playing in front of people, and, after a season without doing so, the senior guard for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team is even more grateful for it.

He’s the first one to gesture to the crowd to get on their feet, whether at home or away.

Davison hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half against Georgia Tech on Wednesday, with the second giving UW its largest lead of the game. The Badgers fans in Atlanta were the loudest they had been all night as Davison headed back to play defense.

“That’s the best part of being Wisconsin Badgers, we travel really well,” Davison said. “Even when we have road games, there’s people there supporting us, people there rooting us on and that’s what it’s all about.”

The Badgers returned to the Kohl Center on Saturday for their first sold out game since the 2019-20 season. Davison wasn’t the only one hyping up the crowd during No. 23 UW’s 89-76 win against Marquette.

Sophomore guard Johnny Davis walked off the court for his final substitution with a smile on his face as the crowd roared to life. Once the team built a substantial lead, fans started calling for coach Greg Gard to put in the walk-ons.

The student section specifically called out junior guard Carter Higginbottom’s name, but when sophmore guard Justin Taphorn went in first they were just as loud.

“I know (the fans) don’t score any points or rebound, but going through last year without anybody … they appreciate that,” Gard said of his players. “The crowd only gets loud when we play well. It’s not really the reverse, we have to play well for the crowd. They should enjoy watching this team play because this team’s been fun to coach and very unselfish, very together.”

UW’s freshmen and sophomores never had experienced a normal atmosphere at home or away because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some venues had limited capacity last season and some fans were allowed to attend the NCAA tournament at neutral sites.

Gard has said the players have had some nerves in games this season and again made the point after UW’s 70-66 win against the Yellow Jackets last week.

“I thought we were a little a little shaky early,” Gard said. “I thought that was evident at the free throw line. I thought we were a little nervous early, which is to be expected. That’s part of having this younger group grow up as they get these experiences.”

Three of the starting five are among the group who are experiencing sold out games for the first time at the collegiate level. Davis, freshman guard Chucky Hepburn and sophomore forward Steven Crowl are used to cardboard cutouts, not screaming fans.

The three didn’t hesitate in either game — even though Crowl faced “Steve, you suck,” chants from the Georgia Tech crowd. Davis produced 40 points, Hepburn had 22 and Crowl scored 20 in the games vs. Georgia Tech and Marquette.

Davison said he was impressed with how his young teammates handled a “hostile” opposing crowd.

“Their ability to tune it out and just control what they can control,” Davison said. “The crowd might get louder, you might not be in a majority red crowd, but the game doesn’t change. I was really proud of the way that we controlled, our communication was great, and I’m also excited because they feed off the crowd a little bit, and it’s fun to be around.”

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