Remembering the Past 20 Years of Wisconsin Men’s Basketball
February 24, 2018
The Badgers were not a respected team. They had not sent a team to the NCAA Tournament since 1947 and had notched only two winning records in the Big Ten. The team was considered a perennial afterthought within the conference. That all changed in 1991 when top prospect Michael Finley announced he would attend the University of Wisconsin.
Finley was 6’ 7” small forward out of Chicago whose claim to fame was losing to Michael Jordan in a game of horse. Though he was considered a big recruit, he didn’t receive a ton of offers right out of high school, leading to the conclusion that Wisconsin, failure and all, was his best choice. Finley’s first two years with the program were forgettable. The team accomplished a first-round exit in the NIT, but by his junior season, Bucky was ready to go. Joined by fellow UW stars Rashard Griffith and Tracy Webster, Michael Finley, and co. earned themselves and the state of Wisconsin it’s first NCAA tournament bid since the end of WWII by securing a nine seed. The team came out with an 80-72 win over number eight Cincinnati, it’s first since they won it all back in 1941. Wisconsin was soon defeated by first seeded Missouri, 109-96.
The next season would be Finley’s last with the Badgers, playing his way into a first-round pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. The Badgers would also miss the tournament yet again in Finley’s senior season. However, not all was lost, midway through the 1995 season, UW hired head coach Dick Bennett (father of current Virginia head coach Tony Bennett). Bennett laid the groundwork for some of the most impressive things to ever be accomplished by a division one basketball program. Dick Bennett led the Badgers to the 1997 Tournament, losing in the first round, and again in 1999. In the 1999 tournament, the Badgers only scored 32 points, the lowest mark for an NCAA Tournament team in the shot clock era.
Despite a disappointing end to the season, this marked the first in a historic run of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the Badgers. In 2000, Wisconsin collected an unimpressive 8-8 Big Ten record, but at 19-13 overall they entered the tournament as an eight seed. The rest is history. UW defeated number nine Fresno State and number one Arizona to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history. Next up would be four seed LSU. The Badgers exhibited one of their best defensive performances under Dick Bennett, forcing LSU into 23 turnovers, including 10 in a 12 minute 25-4 Badgers run, after which Wisconsin would never look back. The final score was 61-48, the Tiger’s lowest scoring game of the entire season.
The next game wouldn’t be so easy. UW was familiar with sixth-seeded and Big Ten rival, Purdue. The two teams had met twice during the regular season, splitting the series 1-1, making this the rubber match. With 5:23 left in the game it was tied at 52, the Badgers then ripped off an 8-1 run making it 60-53 with 1:08 to play. Purdue would make a mini-run of their own, closing within 3 points, but Bucky was able to pull it out, building the schools first Final Four since 1941. This marked the first time since 1947 when they last won the Big Ten and made the tournament that UW basketball was getting national credit, and the fans adored it.
Upon returning to Madison late that night, the team was met by a crowd of 20,000 fans at Camp Randall. On April 1st, 2000 the Badgers encountered another Big Ten, Michigan State, who had beaten Wisconsin twice that season.
Offensively, it was not a graceful first half for either team, with the Spartans leading 19-17 and the teams shooting a combined 26%. The second half was not quite so close. Michigan State came out of the gate with a 13-2 run and, the Badgers would never be able to close within 10 points for the rest of the game. Their outstanding Cinderella run would come to a close two wins shy of a national championship.
Though the season ended on a loss, there were obviously many successes during the 2000 season, and Badger basketball was here to stay. It would not take long for another surprise to rock the program, three games into the 2000-01 season head coach Dick Bennett abruptly announced his retirement. Leaving the team in the hands of assistant coach Brad Soderberg. Soderberg’s team would make the tournament for the third consecutive year, but fall in the first round to Georgia State. After the season, athletic director Pat Richter announces that Brad Soderberg would not return as head coach. Instead naming division III coaching legend William Francis “Bo” Ryan Jr. as the fifteenth head coach of the University of Wisconsin basketball team.
Despite having prior success in the postseason, the Badgers had yet to get it cooking in the regular season. Bo Ryan made it his mission to change that. In his first year as head coach, the Badgers would accrue a 19-13 record including 11-5 in the Big Ten which would be good enough to earn Wisconsin its first Big Ten title since 1947. The Badgers were also able to end losing streaks that were not in their favor, including Michigan State’s 53 game home winning streak. Bo Ryan became the first ever UW basketball coach to be named Big Ten coach of the year, and his team lost in the second round of the tournament to the eventual national champion Maryland.
After an exciting year, Bo Ryan’s squad was not expected to disappoint. The Badgers went on to win their second straight Big Ten title, and Bo Ryan became the only coach in history to win Big Ten coach of the year in each of his first two seasons. In the tournament for the fifth straight year, the Badgers completed the greatest comeback in program history. Down 58-45 in the second round against Tulsa, the Badgers mounted an astonishing 16-2 run in the last 3:36 of the game. The scoring run was capped off by a 3-pointer by junior Freddie Owens with one second remaining, giving them a 61-60 win, sadly they would lose to one seed Kentucky the next week.
The following season, junior Devin Harris would win Big Ten player of the year, the first Badger to do so since 1950. He also leads the Badgers to their first-ever Big Ten tournament title and their sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid. The team made the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2006. In the 2006-07 season, the Badgers start the season with an incredible 26-2 record, which was enough to earn them their first number one ranking in the Associated Press college basketball poll. Unfortunately, they lost both of their games that week, ending their run as the top team in the country.
The impressive regular season earned the team a berth in the tournament as a two seed, the highest in school history. This accomplishment led to Bo Ryan receiving the national coach of the year honors.
The following year, in the 2007-08 season, the team won its third Big Ten Title, second Big Ten Tournament under Bo Ryan and its tenth consecutive tournament appearance. The streak would continue, with berths to The Big Dance in each of the following two seasons.
The 2010-11 season marked the first time that UW had two players named AP All Americans, Jordan Taylor, and Jon Leuer. That team would advance to the Sweet Sixteen as a four seed. Behind the scenes, Bo Ryan was recruiting a little-known center out of Lisle, Illinois named Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky committed to the Badgers on April 30th, 2011. In 2012 the Badgers appeared at yet another Sweet Sixteen. However, they lost to Syracuse by one point. Badgers legend Jordan Taylor attempted a game-winning three, but it missed.
The most memorable moment of the 2012-13 season was at the Kohl Center against third-ranked Michigan. The game was tied at 57 when Michigan hit a three, giving the Badgers 2.5 seconds to score a basket. The ball was inbounded by Mike Bruesewitz to Ben Brust, who heaved a half-court shot as the buzzer sounds, draining it. Wisconsin proceeded to win in overtime. Bo Ryan also won his third Big Ten coach of the year award, and the Badgers were eventually upset in the first round by number 12 Mississippi. This year Kaminsky averaged 4.8 points in 32 games. Not long into the 2013-14 season, Junior Frank Kaminsky would break the Wisconsin record for most points in a game, scoring 43 in just 28 minutes in a win over North Dakota State. Nobody realized that they were not witnessing a fluke game by a mediocre player, they were witnessing the coming out party of the best player ever to grace the floor of the Kohl Center.
UW started that season 16-0 and earned themselves a two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Frank Kaminsky led his team past 15 seed American, then past Oregon and Baylor in the round of 32 and the Sweet Sixteen respectively to advance to the second Elite Eight under Bo Ryan. Their opponent was number one seeded Arizona. Kaminsky scored 28 points and added 11 rebounds in the overtime win, giving Bo Ryan his first ever division 1, Final Four victory. The next game was against eight seed Kentucky. The Badgers held on for most of the game, securing a two-point lead with 6 seconds remaining But with 5.7 seconds remaining, Aaron Harrison launched a deep 3 point shot to give Kentucky a two-point lead. Traevon Jackson’s attempt to tie fell short, and Wisconsin’s magical run had come to an end.
The following season’s expectations were incredibly high for the experienced Badger roster, losing only one starter in Ben Brust. But if one thing’s for sure, Kaminsky and co. were not worried about expectations. They were concerned about one thing. Revenge.
Wisconsin raced to its fourth Big Ten Title under Bo Ryan; they won their third conference tournament, Kaminsky became the third player to win Big Ten player of the year under Bo Ryan, and Ryan won his fourth Big Ten coach of the year award. All of that earned Wisconsin its first ever one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Kentucky was not-so-quietly assembling one of the best seasons in college basketball history. They put together an undefeated regular season and were named the number one overall seed in the tournament.
No one expected anything other than for Kentucky to complete the first ever 40 win season in history, but Wisconsin had other plans. To get to the desired Final Four matchup against Kentucky, UW first had to encounter teams who were also looking for revenge. After cruising by Coastal Carolina in the first round, Wisconsin played Oregon, whom they defeated in the same round the prior year. Long story short, they won, and then went on to defeat North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen in a stressful back and forth game. Next came the second revenge game, Wisconsin was forced to play Arizona once again in the Elite Eight. But this time, Arizona was fired up and ready to take back what they felt they had lost the year before.
However, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky would have none of it. They Badger’s star duo combined for 56 points in an emotional 85-78 victory to reach the Final Four for the second straight year and get a chance to face the now 38-0 powerhouse in the Kentucky Wildcats. Both teams proved that they deserved to be there, fighting to a 36-36 tie at the end of the first. The most substantial lead by any team in the second half was just six, and the teams still found themselves tied with 2:35 remaining. At that point Sam Dekker, having the Tournament of his life hit an oh so clutch 3 to put the Badgers up for good, halting Kentucky one step away from perfection. After the buzzer sounded, the Wildcats walked off to their locker room without even bothering to shake hands with their opponents. Wisconsin had gotten their revenge, but they weren’t at the finish line yet.
Duke was the opponent in the National Championship game, the same Duke that had beaten Wisconsin by ten points in a game at the Kohl Center earlier in the season. Duke had just trounced Michigan State in their Final Four game and was overflowing with an extreme amount of confidence. Going into the game the Badgers not only hoped to win, but they expected to. After all, they beat the best team in the country. But in the real world, stories don’t always have the endings that they should. This game came to a tie at the end of the first half. But after halftime, the Badgers came out of the gates swinging, jumping out to a quick nine-point lead. Despite the Badgers quick lead, Freshman Grayson Allen put his role as a spark plug to good use. He scored Duke’s next five points, helping tie the game with 5:08 to go. Wisconsin took a two-point lead before Duke ripped off an 11-0 run. In the end, Duke was the team cutting the net, hoisting the trophy and reliving the best moment from their season. While the Badgers were the ones left to walk to the locker room, shocked and dejected.
Kaminsky and Dekker were both set to be drafted next year, with Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan all graduating as well. Bo Ryan announced his retirement from coaching amid scandal, leaving few remnants of the team that was.
The programs unbelievable streak of success seems to be coming to an end amidst the current disappointing season. Leaving fans to sit and reminisce about the days of Michael Finley, Dick Bennett, Jordan Taylor, Devin Harris, Alando Tucker, Jon Leuer, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, Bo Ryan, and countless other icons who came through Madison to contribute to one of the most exceptional programs in history. Because that’s all we can do, reminisce.