Despite heading into the NCAA tournament with a respectable No. 5 seed, the majority of national media experts picked Wisconsin to lose to No. 12 seed Weber State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Even after advancing to the second round, experts believed Cinderella’s glass slipper fit securely on No. 13 seed Tulsa and predicted a UW loss.
The Badgers (24-7, 12-4 Big Ten) proved critics wrong in both instances and now march into the Sweet Sixteen to take on the No. 1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats Thursday. But it’s the same story: Very few people outside Madison are giving the Badgers a chance to win.
Nevertheless, head coach Bo Ryan, the Big Ten Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season, and the players could care less. The Badgers insist they play every game to their best abilities regardless of the level of national recognition they receive.
Prior to former UW coach Dick Bennett’s successful tenure, it was miraculous for the Badgers to even earn a NCAA tournament bid. This March, the Badgers are playing in the NCAAs for a UW-record fifth consecutive season.
Not only are the Badgers proving they belong in the NCAAs every March, but they are proving they can win there, too. UW has won seven games during the past four tournaments, with only Maryland, Duke, Michigan State, Arizona and Kansas winning more games in that span.
Following Saturday’s remarkable comeback versus Tulsa, which was capped off by Freddie Owens’ three-pointer with one second remaining, UW’s efforts are beginning to slightly turn the heads of some experts, including ESPN’s Dick Vitale.
“[Wisconsin] proved again that they deserve some respect, because you don’t hear anybody talking about the Badgers, and all they’ve done is win the Big Ten title two years in a row,” Vitale said on his website.
Yet Vitale still picks Kentucky to win it all.
Although UW’s roster currently lacks McDonald’s High School All-Americans, the Badgers have managed to exceed most expectations by playing crisp, fundamental basketball.
UW commits the fewest fouls per game in the NCAA (14.9), turns the ball over the second fewest per game (10.5) and has the fourth stingiest defense in the NCAA (59.2 points per game). Those efforts have given the Badgers a school-record 24 wins this season, en route to Thursday’s matchup in Minneapolis.
While the Badgers have been deemed a defensive team by the national media, their depth and consistency on the offensive end cannot go unnoticed. Kirk Penney (16.1), Devin Harris (12.6), Alando Tucker (12.3), Freddie Owens (10.6) and Mike Wilkinson (10.2) make UW just one of five teams in the nation to have all five starters averaging double figures in points.
Now that Ryan and the players have turned the program into a winning combination, recruiting the top players has become easier. Ryan has landed McDonald’s High School All-American Brian Butch, a top national prospect from Appleton, Wis., to come play center at UW next season.
Perhaps the Badgers have a better chance now and in the future than many doubters believe.
And of course they’ll have the chance to prove their doubters wrong, when they play the nation’s best team Thursday night.