With the UW men’s basketball and hockey programs rolling on all cylinders, there seems to be a fervor surrounding Badger athletics unlike any time in recent memory — if ever.
In the latest polls released Monday, Bo’s ballers cracked the ESPN/USA top 10 for the first time this season and will likely remain in the top 25 despite suffering a 57-65 loss to the Illini last night. Coach Eaves’ hockey squad has been equally impressive and currently holds a No. 6 ranking in the USCHO standings.
Scanning over the top 15 positions in each of these respective polls, there isn’t a single school other than the University of Wisconsin that’s represented in both — a testament to just how well-rounded the state of Badger athletics has been in 2003-04.
Michael Leckrone, who is currently enjoying his 35th year as director of the Wisconsin Band, thinks following UW sports has always been entertaining. But when both the men’s hockey and basketball teams are doing as well as they have been, the games just become that much more special.
“I think games are always fun, but I think they’re especially fun when you win,” Leckrone said. “What I’m seeing is that the crowd and the teams now are starting to feed on each other, like we haven’t seen for a long time … I think that was the one thing that had been missed: when one or the other was good. But now we’ve got both of them doing well.”
When asked if this was the most passionate overall following he’d seen behind Wisconsin’s winter athletic programs, Leckrone could only draw comparisons to the 1999-2000 season — a year in which Dick Bennett led the basketball team to the Final Four, and Jeff Sauer’s hockey squad captured the WCHA regular-season league championship for just the third time in school history.
Due to the exceptional, widespread support the hockey team has received this year, however, Leckrone feels UW’s 2003-04 campaign has generated even more excitement than that particular year in the history of Badger athletics.
“I don’t ever remember — ever — the students getting as involved with both teams simultaneously as they have now,” Leckrone said. “I think the year that we went to the Final Four, everyone got on the basketball bandwagon because it was kind of new and fresh, and so forth. But the hockey team, the students didn’t really have the same support that I get now. I mean, some of those people are hockey crazy. They just keep it going. And I haven’t seen that level of participation ever before.”
Part of what makes this season so much more unique and special, though, is how long Badger fans have waited to boast a top-notch program in both basketball and hockey.
Between the1960-61 and 2000-01 seasons, the UW men’s basketball team compiled an overall record of just 533-606 and failed to capture a single Big Ten title.
While the hockey team was able to put together a few standout years over this stretch, Wisconsin’s ballers — despite suiting up stars like Michael Finley, Sean Mason and Sean Daugherty — were never able to field a consistently winning squad.
When thinking back on this rough stretch, one game in particular stands out in Leckrone’s mind.
“I remember one game a long time ago, there was a blizzard,” Leckrone said. “This sounds like an exaggeration, but it really was true. Literally, there were probably more people in the band than there were fans in the house. We had like 80 or 90 people, and there couldn’t have been more than that many [fans] in the house.”
But with success, so too comes expectation.
With the basketball team ranked No. 10 and No. 12 in the ESPN/USA Today and A.P. polls, respectively, Badger fans have grown accustomed to winning — which is an approach they have not always enjoyed.
“Right now expectations are so high because of the publicity we’re getting,” Leckrone said. “Golly, we’re No. 12 in the country right now. Now people are disappointed if we don’t make the top 10. I can remember the days when you’d say, ‘Gee, I hope we can win 12, 15 games,’ and that was the goal. You want to knock off maybe one good team during the course of the season, that’s what your expectation was. Now if you get beat, everyone goes around moping — me, too.”
Between the UW men’s basketball and hockey teams’ accomplishments — and Barry Davis’ wrestling squad having a solid season — 2003-04 has become one of the most enthusiastically followed years in the history of Badger athletics.
With the craziness of March Madness rapidly approaching and none of these teams showing any signs of seriously teetering off, this level of excitement is likely to only grow as their respective seasons draw to a close.
As Better than Ezra’s lead singer Kevin Griffin once put it, there just seems to be “A feeling in the air.”