When the Wisconsin men’s basketball team prepares for the upcoming Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis later this week, they find themselves in uncharted waters. The Badgers will be heading into the tourney with the top seed for the first time ever.
UW, which shares the regular season title with Ohio State, Illinois and Indiana, were guaranteed the top seed as soon as they defeated Michigan last week. The Badgers held onto enough of the tiebreaker options to ensure that seed no matter whom they shared the title with. The Badgers’ 3-1 record against their co-champs is the highest winning percentage among the four, which is why they earned the top seed.
The No. 1 seed shows just how far UW has come since the tournament started five years ago. Before this season, UW has held onto the No. 10, 4, 5 and 6 spots. They have made the semifinals twice and have bowed out twice in the quarterfinal rounds. The Badgers have followed up a Big Ten tourney with an NCAA tournament three times but have never reached the championship game.
The conference tournament has provided an outlet for teams that needed a few more wins to possibly make the NCAA tournament, and Wisconsin have been no exception. When the Badgers headed into the tournament in 2000 with a 16-12 record, they figured they needed at least one win, probably two, to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers fared well as they knocked off Northwestern 51-41 and then Purdue 78-66 in quarterfinal action.
Wisconsin faced off with Michigan State for the second time that season but fell 55-46 in the semifinals. The two victories in the conference tournament not only helped the Badgers make the NCAA tournament, they provided enough momentum to help propel them to the Final Four, where once again they lost to the Spartans for the third time that year.
In the inaugural tournament five years ago, the Badgers headed into the tourney with an 11-18 record and managed to make it to the quarterfinal round, where eventually they lost against top-seeded Illinois.
No. 10 seed UW earned the right to play the Illini when it narrowly defeated seventh-seeded Penn State 52-51, thanks to a nine-foot jumper by then-freshman Maurice Linton with 3.7 seconds left. The showdown against UI was not as fortunate for the Badgers when they were unable to take advantage of a 46-45 lead with just over six minutes remaining. Illinois regained the lead on an 11-0 run that helped secure the 66-61 victory. While the loss sent Wisconsin home for good, it opened the door to the possibilities the future held.
The next year saw UW enter with the fourth seed and an NCAA bid all but secured, thanks to a 21-8 record and third-place tie in the conference. With a first-round bye, the Badgers opened up quarterfinal action against Iowa and won 74-60. The semifinal round had them facing off once again with the No. 1 seed when they took on Michigan State. An upset was not to be; they were unable to improve on a 22-22 halftime tie. The Spartans opened up the second half with a 12-2 run to put them up for good. UW shot 29.3 percent, a season low at the time, from the floor for the game. The Badgers went on to lose to SW Missouri State 32-43 on a 25.5 percent shooting effort.
The only time the Badgers have failed to claim a victory in the Big Ten tournament was last year, when they faced off with Indiana after finishing fifth in the regular season. The fourth-seeded Hoosiers broke open a 28-24 halftime deficit in route to a 64-52 victory. UW then lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Georgia State in the final seconds.
This year, the Badgers will head to Indy with a six-game winning streak and the chance to hold onto a conference title by themselves. While it is too early to predict how UW will fare in postseason, head coach Bo Ryan considers this the start of a whole new season, one that, unlike four months ago, does not have the Badgers counted out of the picture. “Now it’s you bop ‘til you drop, and if it’s not there one night, you don’t get a second chance to bring it back,” said Ryan. “You play until you lose. This is the other half of the season. We put the regular season in, so now we’ll see how we play in the next season.”