ALBUQUERQUE - They will come to Boston this week, faced with the task of knocking off No. 1 seed Syracuse in an East Regional semifinal on Thursday night at TD Garden.
They will come with some bruises inflicted in a brutal, Final Four-quality game by Vanderbilt in a third-round game at The Pit.
They will come with a résumé that says they might not be the best in show, but they can match up against anyone.
But make no mistake, Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers will not be an easy out for anyone.
Just ask fifth-seeded Vanderbilt, which took the Badgers’ best shots early and late, kept coming at them, but fell just short in a 60-57 decision that was as much about hand-to-hand combat as it was finesse.
“We’re going to the Sweet 16 in 2012 to play a very good team,’’ said Ryan. “That means we survived and advanced. Gets harder. Everybody wants to win.’’
The fourth-seeded Badgers showed their desire from the start on Saturday night. After rebuilding a lead that had been as large as 8 points in the first half, to 9 with 6:43 remaining, the Badgers braced for the storm they knew was coming from Vanderbilt and its superb backcourt of John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley, and go-to players such as forward Jeffery Taylor and center Festus Ezeli. All played a part in the drama that unfolded over the next several minutes.
Whether it was Jenkins, who scored 13 points, or Ezeli, who had a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds, Vanderbilt seemed ready to come up with an ending it could celebrate. And when Ezeli converted a layup with 2:19 left, Vanderbilt led, 57-56.
But Wisconsin had its own assemblage of players ready for starring roles. Guard Jordan Taylor answered Ezeli’s basket with a 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer with 1:42 left, giving the Badgers a lead they never relinquished.
Not that Vanderbilt didn’t take another shot. And then another.
Jenkins missed a 3-pointer with 1:25 left that would have given the Commodores back the lead, and missed another trey with four seconds left that would have tied the game at 60.
“[The last shot] was a pretty good look,’’ said Jenkins, who was only 3 of 13 from the field, 2 of 9 on 3-pointers. “I felt like I got a good chance of having it going in, just like a lot of looks I had today. It just didn’t drop for me.’’
The bounces didn’t go the Commodores’ way, especially at the end.
“It was a great game if you didn’t care who won,’’ said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings. “We had some opportunities at the end. They made a few more plays than we did and they deserved to win.’’
The Badgers (26-9) earned it. They were intent on beating the Commodores - who thrive on 3-pointers - at their own game, making 10 of the 33 from long range, doubling the production of Vanderbilt (5 for 19).
And they did it with a balanced attack in which five Badgers scored in double figures, led by Taylor’s 14 but including guard Ben Brust (11 points), who came off the bench and made 3 of 5 trifectas.
It still almost wasn’t enough as Vanderbilt came from 8 down to close the margin to a point (32-31) at halftime, then fought off the 9-point margin the final six minutes, aided largely by Stallings switching from his traditional man-to-man defense to a pressing zone, which cooled the Badgers from 3-point territory.
But Wisconsin made more plays down the stretch, and are heading to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
“The beautiful thing about the NCAA Tournament is we’re going to enjoy this win for about 45 minutes,’’ said Taylor. “Some guys might be done enjoying it already because we’ve got to get ready for a really good Syracuse team.
“But we’re ready to go. We’re enjoying our experience this year and just trying to make it last as long as we can, just trying to play hard every possession, every game.’’