It started with a new coach and his dream.
When Bo Ryan took the reigns of the Wisconsin men’s basketball program prior to the beginning of the 2001-02 season, he brought with him four Divison III national championships, a tough-as-nails work ethic, and a desire to bring the Badgers to the top of the Big Ten.
Ryan never expected to rebuild this Wisconsin program; never assumed, like so many others, that a few years of mediocrity would be necessary before Wisconsin became the type of national power Ryan’s UW-Platteville squads had been for nearly 15 seasons.
Despite UW’s lack of depth and experience, the winningest coach in NCAA history just decided to start doing what he does best: winning, his way.
For the Wisconsin Badgers, the Ryan regime started with grueling preseason conditioning featuring endless runs up Ryan’s good friend “the hill” and ended with UW winning its first Big Ten championship since 1947 and Ryan being named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
So much for rebuilding.
Ryan took a program in disarray, a team that had lost five key players to graduation and saw outside shooter Rickey Bower transfer, a squad that had only two returning seniors and one junior, and transformed it into a Big Ten force and an NCAA tournament team, achievements many observers speculated would be years off.
It wasn’t always an easy road for the Badgers, who opened the season 1-4, dropping games to powerhouses like Hawaii and Weber State. The Badgers’ early-season troubles came to a head when they blew a 20-point second-half lead in a 62-61 loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Another late collapse awaited the Badgers when they returned home to face Temple, as Lynn Greer scored 47 points, hit three-pointers to send the game into both overtime and double-overtime, and dominated in double-OT to beat the Badgers 70-67.
Sitting on a 2-5 record one month prior to the start of their Big Ten season, the Badgers could have folded and chalked up the year as nothing more than much-needed seasoning for next year’s campaign.
Bo Ryan would have none of that, though. UW split road games with Ohio and Xavier before winning eight of their next ten games, including victories over No. 15 Marquette, Tennessee, No. 7 Illinois and No. 22 Michigan State, handing the Spartans their first home loss in 53 games.
After the MSU victory, the Badgers struggled to keep their Big Ten record above .500, but found comfort while playing on their home floor in the Kohl Center, beating Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State at home.
Wisconsin found playing away from Madison a bit more difficult, getting destroyed at Illinois 80-48 and dropping games at Northwestern and Michigan, to bring its record to 12-11 and 5-5 in the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s NCAA tournament hopes were fading fast, and it seemed as if Ryan’s system might not be right for the Badgers, who were 1-5 on the road in the Big Ten after the Michigan loss. That’s when Bo Ryan basketball guided the Badgers to the postseason.
After losing in Ann Arbor, the Badgers seemed to refocus as a team and completely adopt Ryan’s style of play. The players began to embrace Ryan’s swing offense, man-to-man defense, team-first philosophy and, most of all, his winning attitude.
To close out their Big Ten season, Wisconsin went on an absolute tear, winning six straight games to finish 10-5 in conference play, good enough for a share of the Big Ten title.
En route to winning the league, UW defeated No. 22 Ohio State, the Big Ten leader at the time, 94-92, behind 21 points and 10 boards from guard Kirk Penney. The Badgers avenged their earlier loss to Northwestern by dominating the Wildcats 73-44 in Madison before heading to Bloomington, Ind., to face the red-hot Hoosiers with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.
If the Badgers defeated Indiana and played well in their final three games against Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan, they had a legitimate shot at making the tourney. If UW lost to the Hoosiers and dropped one more game down the stretch, though, it looked like Ryan would have to make his first NCAA trip with Wisconsin at a later date.
Wisconsin made the most of the opportunity laid before it, as Indiana was without Big Ten Player of the Year Jared Jeffries, and the Badgers beat Indiana 64-63 to win their first game in Bloomington since 1977, Ryan’s first season as an assistant at UW.
Wisconsin finished the regular season in style, beating Minnesota, Iowa and finally Michigan, to finish 10-5 in the league and atop the Big Ten. The Badgers had the misfortune of running into an unstoppable Luke Recker in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. Recker hit a 15-footer as time expired as Iowa defeated the Badgers 58-56 in Indianapolis.
After their early Big Ten tournament exit, the Badgers garnered an eight seed for the NCAA tourney, which gave them a first-round matchup against St. John’s. The Badgers dominated the Red Storm as Devin Harris, Freddie Owens, Mike Wilkinson, Travon Davis and Kirk Penney all scored in double figures and the Badgers rolled to an 80-70 victory.
Wisconsin’s magical season came to an end in the second round of the NCAA tournament, as they lost 87-57 to the extremely talented first-seed Maryland Terrapins in Washington, D.C. The Badgers kept the score close in the first half and went into the locker room with the score 38-30, but Maryland came out on fire on the second stanza, scoring 49 points in the half to defeat the Badgers.
The Maryland loss did nothing to tarnish the Badgers’ season; they gained their first Big Ten title in over 50 years, made their school-record fourth-straight tournament appearance, and most importantly, gelled as a team, becoming a complete unit. UW will feel the loss of seniors Davis and Charlie Wills next year, but if the 2001-2002 season is any indication, the future is bright for the Wisconsin Badgers and Bo Ryan.