Sunday, March 30, 2014

Once only dimly acknowledged even in the state, Wisconsin Badgers basketball a force to be reckoned with

When I was growing up in Wisconsin, the Badger basketball team was mediocre to the point of making exactly zero impression on me. At the time, the Milwaukee Bucks had gone through their most dominate period in team history, winning an NBA title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, while Al McGuire had turned Marquette into a college powerhouse. It was thus easy to forget that UW even had a basketball team. It wasn’t until the university hired Stu Jackson as coach in 1992 did it appear that it was serious about establishing a presence on the college basketball scene. 

The 1993-1994 team led by future Dallas Mavericks star Michael Finley won its first 11 games and was ranked 12th in the AP poll. Despite the fact that the Badgers lost 10 of its next 17 games that year, it received its first invitation to the NCAA tournament in almost 50 years, beating Cincinnati in the first round before losing to No. 1 seed Missouri in a wild 109-96 contest. Jackson surprised fans by leaving after the season, supposedly for greener pastures that never actually materialized. 

Nevertheless, new coach Dick Bennett continued to improve the program; beginning in the 1998-99 season, the Badgers have appeared in the NCAA tournament 16 straight seasons. The 1999-2000 team became the first to advance to the Final Four since 1941, when Wisconsin beat Washington State to win the national championship. At one point 13-12 during the season, Wisconsin was a surprise entry into the “big dance” as an 8th seed, but proceeded to upset top-seeded Arizona led by Gilbert Arenas, although without leading scorer Loren Woods. The Badgers would beat two more higher-seeded teams before losing to eventual champion Michigan State for the fourth time that season in the national semi-finals.

For the past 13 seasons, the Badgers have been coached by Bo Ryan, who coached four national championship teams in Division III. In the 2002-2003 season, the 5th seeded Badgers lost a tough game to one-seed Kentucky in the regional semi-finals, who would lose to the Dwyane Wade-led Marquette two days later. The following year the Badgers won the Big Ten tournament championship and were ranked in the top-ten in the final regular season AP poll, yet they only received a sixth-seed in the NCAA tournament and would lose to the third-seeded Pittsburgh by four points in the second round. 

National respect was slow in coming, as Ryan’s teams relied more on seasoning and experience than raw, flashy athleticism. In the 2004-2005 season, the Badgers made a surprise run to the Elite Eight, although it was again against double-digit seeds before giving top-seeded North Carolina a game before falling six points short. But respect came in the 2006-2007 season, when the Badgers opened the season 21-1—riding a 17-game winning streak—and eventually were voted No. 1 for the first time in the AP poll three weeks later. 

But consecutive losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, and a loss to the latter in the Big Ten tournament championship game dashed any hope for one-seed in the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, this team turned out to be a mirage; as a two-seed, it had to scramble to escape an upset loss to 15-seed Texas A&M, Corpus Christie, and then was embarrassed by UNLV in the second round. It would pay for this the following season, when despite the fact the Badgers won both the Big Ten conference regular season and tournament championship, the NCAA tournament selection committee gave the 6th-ranked Badgers a third seed. Nevertheless, the Badgers had a golden opportunity to prove skeptics wrong, playing three straight games against double-digit seeds. Unfortunately, the third was Davidson, the tournament surprise team; Wisconsin managed to keep up for a half, and then were blown away in the second half. 

Between then and now, the Badgers were a competent but unremarkable team. This season the Badgers opened 16-0, with notable victories over Florida and Virginia, and had commentators talking the possibility of an unbeaten season. No sooner had that talk surfaced than the Badgers proceeded to deflate that balloon, losing five of their next six games. Still, Wisconsin recovered enough to finish the season with the Big Ten’s best overall won-loss record, and its top-three strength-of-schedule ranking and high RPI earned it a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. One of the knocks against Ryan’s teams was that it could not beat higher seeded teams in the tournament, but this time a retooled offense that was no longer one-dimensional enabled the Badgers to overcome a 12-point halftime deficit against Oregon, crush a defensive Baylor team, and then defeat No. 1 seed Arizona in the West Regional finals.

Most commentators were impressed by the Badgers’ run, remarking on the team’s sudden credibility as a team that could play against the “big boys” in the tournament, including that notable early season win against the overall top seed Florida. There were some sour grapes to be sure, as many complained about the late offensive foul call against Arizona’s Nick Johnson; why people thought Johnson should get away with an obvious push-off when Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes was called for the same after an obvious flop by Michigan’s Jordan Morgan—preventing a stunning come-from-behind win in the final moments—was merely being hypocritical. 

Admittedly, I would have preferred to see Wisconsin face Michigan in the Final Four, but they were “upset” by a Kentucky team that apparently had a lot of people on the selection committee fooled. A preseason number one, Kentucky is showing why observers thought they were the best team in the country. One wonders if Wisconsin has the “athletes” to keep up with them, but one of the Badgers’ strengths over the years—seasoned players—may be enough to neutralize Kentucky’s freshmen stars. To be honest, I hope the Badgers end Kentucky’s run in suitably destructive fashion.

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