The Wisconsin Badgers may lack the pedigree of some of it's Big Ten counterparts, but have now secured a place in a second straight Final Four. The current Badgers team now has as many Final Four appearances as Wisconsin had in its previous 73 seasons. As Wisconsin prepares for its highly anticipated National Semifinal rematch with the unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats, lets take a look back at Wisconsin’s previous trips to the Final Four.
The Way Way Back
The Badgers first Final Four appearance and lone national championship came all the way back in 1941. Led by head coach Bud Foster, Wisconsin got by Pittsburgh 36-30 in the semifinals which set up a meeting with the heavily favored Washington State Cougars. Foster’s approach was defense first, a message his team took to heart. Wisconsin limited Washington State to 14-for-63 shooting from the field and got 12 points from tournament MVP John Kotz to best the Cougars 39-34. The game predated many aspects of basketball that younger fans (such as myself) likely would not recognize the game without. The 24-second shot clock, three-point line, and expansion of the tournament field to 64 teams were all more than 40 years away. The tournament featured only eight teams in the 1941 season, and the champion Wisconsin Badgers played a grand total of just 23 games.
Wisconsin’s New Groove
When Wisconsin entered the 2000 tournament as an No. 8 seed, not much was thought of them. The Badgers entered the Big Dance with 13 losses and were just .500 in Big Ten play. The previous season Wisconsin had come into the tournament a No. 5 seed only to be knocked out in the first round by Southwest Missouri State from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Badgers did not have a single Sweet 16 appearance to speak of, and at that point, a No. 8 seed or higher had reached the Final Four only once. This Wisconsin team shared something in common with the 1941 championship squad though, a head coach who valued defense above all else.
It was that tenacious defense that was the catalyst in an upset win over No. 1 seed Arizona in the second round. Wisconsin then cruised past LSU in the Sweet 16 and then survived a battle with conference foe Purdue in the Elite 8. Wisconsin and North Carolina became just the second and third teams to reach the Final Four as a No. 8 seed since the field expanded to 64 teams. Awaiting Wisconsin though, was a Michigan State team that had already contributed three of its losses that season. The Badgers held the Spartans below 60 points, as they had every other opponent in the tournament, but ultimately could not muster up enough offense. Michigan State, led by the "Flintstones" (Mateen Cleaves, Antonio Smith, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson) beat the Badgers a fourth and final time, 53-41, before going on to win the national title.
How to Train Your Badgers
Three games into the following season, head coach Dick Bennett decide to retire, citing exhaustion after leading the team to 94-68 record from 1995-2000. That opened the door for former University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bo Ryan to take the reigns of the program in 2002. While Bennett had begun to build a foundation for Wisconsin basketball, Ryan is the man who constructed the house that sits atop it. One whose current evaluation on Zillow is through the roof. Ryan has taken the Badgers to the tournament in each of his 14 seasons at the helm. Combined with his predecessors, that streak is good for a tie for the sixth longest in NCAA tournament history.
Despite all that success, there were those (a certain BT Powerhouse blogger included) who thought Ryan could not get Wisconsin to the next level. Prior to the 2013-14 season Ryan was 1-4 in Sweet 16 appearances, with seven first weekend exits peppered in. Wisconsin secured its first No. 2 seed that season after finishing in a tie for second place in the Big Ten and being ousted in the semifinals of the conference tournament by Michigan State. The Badgers rolled by No. 15 seed American and then dispatched Oregon and Baylor with relative ease. In the Regional Final Wisconsin faced No. 1 seed Arizona Wildcats in a game that will live on in tournament history. The two teams battled back-and-forth for 40 minutes, and in the end, even that was not enough. The game went into overtime, where Frank Kaminsky continued his fantastic play, helping his team escape with a 64-63 victory. Kaminsky finished the game with 28 points, including six in overtime, and also chipped in 11 rebounds.
Wisconsin would face Kentucky in its third Final Four appearance in yet another instant classic. This time it was the Badger fans who were left with a sour taste in their mouth as Aaron Harrison did what Aaron Harrison does best…hit savage treys with a hand in his face. (Wisconsin fans avert your eyes)
This season has been a tour-de-force for Wisconsin, as it returned virtually every key starter from its 2014 Final Four run. Bo’s Badgers cruised to the coach’s fourth Big Ten regular season title, and then staged a dramatic comeback to beat the Spartans in overtime of the Big Ten tournament championship for a clean sweep of conference titles. At 35-3 Wisconsin earned its first ever No. 1 seed and was placed in the West Region. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this years team and the 2013-14 Badgers is how loose this group seems to be; soaking in the moment and enjoying the big stage. From trolling stenographers, to not realizing microphones are on, or talking about Super Smash Bros (I think) no team has had more press conference swagger than Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the Badgers have looked pretty good on the court too. Wisconsin ended Oregon’s season for a second straight year, and made a nifty second half comeback to beat North Carolina in the Sweet 16. This set up another Regional Final showdown with No. 2 seed Arizona. Again the Badgers were too much for the western Wildcats, burying them under a barrage of second half 3-pointers, including this cold-blooded bomb from Sam Dekker.
This sets up a Final Four rematch for the ages with the Kentucky Wildcats. A quest for revenge, a less prestigious house (err…school) going up against Big Blue Nation with a chance at the throne on the line…and I thought the return of Game of Thrones was still a week away. Grab your popcorn, this is going to be a battle you do not want to miss.