- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Let some of the other top seeds lose and blow up NCAA Tournament brackets.

A safer wager these days is betting all the cheese curds on Wisconsin to make a deep run in March.

The Badgers (22-12) are as much a staple of the tournament this time of year - and that first weekend in April - as any traditional blue blood program. Wisconsin is two wins away in the East Regional from becoming the first program since UCLA (2006-2008) to make three straight Final Fours.

The magnitude of such a feat hasn’t been lost on the seventh-seeded Badgers.

“We didn’t have anybody in our locker room that had gone through ups and downs,” coach Greg Gard said. “You were 66-12 in the last two years. Two Final Fours, 66-12. That’s not the normal college basketball athlete’s experience. They’ll usually have to go through some form of adversity.”

Notre Dame (23-11) is standing in Wisconsin’s way and ready to throw some adversity at the Badgers at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on Friday night.

The football school found some of its hoops mojo last season when it at last reached the Elite Eight under coach Mike Brey.

The sixth-seeded Irish enjoyed playing a spot in the Final Four so much, they are back again, trying to take the next step.

Expect a close one: Notre Dame won its first two tourney games by seven points and one point and Wisconsin has wins by four and three points.

The Irish are riding guard Demetrius Jackson (15.5 ppg; 18 in NCAA win vs. Stephen F. Austin) and forward Zach Auguste (double-doubles in both NCAA games) as they chase six tournament wins over a two-season span for the first time in program history.

Auguste said the Irish boast “one of the most efficient offenses in the country.” Jackson said that efficient offense starts with Auguste.

“We’re going to throw the ball into Zach a bunch, give him a bunch of post feeds and let him go to work,” Jackson said.

The Badgers, though, are here on the strength of their defense: Among teams in the Sweet 16, Wisconsin’s 53 ppg ranks second behind Syracuse (50.5) and the Badgers are holding teams to just 39 percent shooting from the floor. Oh, and the Badgers outrebounded two teams (Pittsburgh and Xavier) that were among the best on the boards in the regular season.

“We had 60 days ago we couldn’t defend like we did last weekend,” Gard said. “We had 60 days ago we couldn’t defend like we did last weekend. So our toughness level and our commitment to the defensive end has grown exponentially in the last two, three weeks.”

Here are more things to watch in the East Regional semifinal:

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HERE TO STAY: Wisconsin is 22-12 with one big L not found in the win-loss column.

“The best loss we had all year was the loss of the interim tag,” Gard said, smiling.

Gard was named interim coach in December when long-time coach Bo Ryan retired and Wisconsin gave him the job on a permanent basis earlier this month. Gard, who joined the Wisconsin staff as an assistant in 2001, was asked by a reporter if he wanted to return next season.

Whoops.

“Did you know I signed a contract already,” Gard asked.

Gard, trying to lead Wisconsin to its third straight Final Four, hoped to stick around and keep the program rolling next season, and beyond.

“They actually gave me a five-year contract about three weeks ago. I always had a one-year contract,” he said. “I thought, wow, I saw five years on that thing, where do I sign?”

Gard grew up in the small town of Cobb, Wisconsin, which is about an hour’s drive west of the Kohl Center. Considered one of the top assistants in the game, Ryan said in his retirement announcement that he had hoped Gard would get the job.

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MEMORIES: Philadelphia’s Spectrum has been demolished. The image of Duke’s Christian Laettner hitting “The Shot” at the arena to eliminate Kentucky in the epic 1992 regional final remained fresh for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.

Brey was an assistant under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski when Laettner nailed one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history.

“A lot of memories from across the parking lot in that old Spectrum,” Brey said.

Brey became familiar with the area in five seasons coaching Delaware about an hour south of Phily in Newark and became friends with local coaches such as former Penn coach (now at Temple) Fran Dunphy and Villanova’s Jay Wright.

“Dunph and Jay, they made me feel like Philly guys every now and then because I was close,” Brey said. “The great coaches that have come out of this area, just even being in our hotel, the people working, they’re hoops people. So I’m energized being back in the city, and I’m really proud that I can bring my team here.”

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RECORD SETTER: Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste is shooting 71 percent (43 of 61) in seven career NCAA Tournament games. UCLA’s Bill Walton holds the mark at 69 percent. The minimum to qualify for the NCAA record book is 70 attempts.

“When the lights are brightest, big-time regular season games, he has really delivered,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “And in the ultimate big stage, this tournament, for him to be mentioned of possibly breaking Bill Walton’s record, it’s unbelievable.”

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AP college basketball website: https://collegebasketball.ap.org/

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