Disclaimer: Since I'm new to the staff and this article is a retrospective, I actually did watch some of the games referenced below. Rest assured, with all the free time this job is going to take up I doubt I could be bothered to sit idly and watch sports going forward.
I liked how the Nebrasketball recap was formatted like a stage play script, and if I learned anything from
Lord Papa Bear AD Barry Alvarez, it's that you emulate a Nebraska veteran if you want to build something from nothing. That and how to dance, but I digress.
Wisconsin started its campaign a bit earlier than usual with a five-exhibition August tour of Canada. If there was ever a time for Bo Ryan to schedule some extra work for his team, this was it. In the wake of a disappointing first-round exit in the previous year's NCAA tournament, the Badgers were replacing their entire starting frontcourt with former point guard and knee reconstruction-recipient Josh Gasser at the 3, an out-of-position Sam Dekker at the 4, and a sparingly-used Frank Kaminsky at center. This also depleted the Badger bench of significant contributors, so the Canada tour offered Wisconsin an early look at a freshman class they would be forced to rely on for immediate contributions when the season started.
Equipped with their finest mountie hats and bellies full of Canadian bacon and poutine, the Badgers kicked off the tour with an exhibition against Carleton University. This first game presented Wisconsin with a dose of culture shock: the international rules (particularly the 24-second shot clock) played to the strengths of a Carleton squad that won 9 of the previous 11 Canadian national championships (and now 10 of the last 12) and the Badgers gave up 95 points in a debut loss. The loss was disappointing but it brought to light a number of key facts: Duje Dukan was now capable of contributing meaningful minutes, Josh Gasser looked to be on the right track in his recovery from knee surgery, and most importantly, Wisconsin was capable of picking up their pace while staying true to their offensive principles. The Badgers would go on to win their remaining four exhibitions and leave Canada with a better feel for its roster and an evolved identity on offense.
Act I: Not Your Older Brother's Badgers
It's fair to say Wisconsin exceeded expectations in the non-conference season. Facing a schedule highlighted by games against Florida, Virginia, Saint Louis, St. John's, and Green Bay, the Badgers battled one of the tougher non-conference slates in the country and walked away unscathed. With perhaps the most skilled and athletic roster of Bo Ryan's tenure, Wisconsin was able to pick up its notoriously deliberate offensive pace to a generally more palatable level with immediate dividends. Bo Ryan needed at least two freshmen to step up and contribute in order to have an adequate rotation, and he got just that from heralded recruits Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Koenig, a talented pass-first point guard that turned down Kansas, North Carolina, and Duke in favor of Wisconsin, immediately emerged as the top reserve guard and provided 10-20 minutes of relief each game. Top 150 prospect Nigel Hayes provided similar production in the post, utilizing his near-automatic midrange jumper and penchant for getting to the free throw line to spark instant offense off the bench.
The Badgers would go on to win their first 16 games, a program-best, and climb to a deserved #3 national ranking. As was the case for virtually every team, though, a dark road lied ahead, and a smug, tanned goof was at the front of the line, collecting tolls with clapping hands.
Act II: The Swoon
Every team in college basketball loses; it's just a part of the game. Whether you're a bottom-feeder or a dominant mid-major, eventually the scoreboard doesn't favor you. But when a team suffers through a bunch of unexpected losses in a relatively short amount of time, it can turn a promising season into a sour one in a hurry. For Wisconsin it started with a trip to Indiana, a program that Bo Ryan has dominated since Tom Crean took over. Bringing into town its best team ever and having won its previous 87 matchups (estimated) against a Hoosier program in the midst of a down year, it only seems fitting that UW's first loss of the season would take place in Bloomington. "Bizarro Crean" made his debut performance against Wisconsin, making great substitutions and tactical adjustments to complement a brilliant performance from Yogi Ferrell and hand Wisconsin its first loss. Hoosier faithful stormed the court, a rare display for a blue blood, and just like that a Badger squad that could do no wrong had a blueprint to be beaten.
Wisconsin would go on to lose five games in a six game stretch, the most notable occurring on January 29th at the Kohl Center. The Badgers welcomed the Sacramento Kings into their home for a rare pro-am showdown. The Kings, wearing jerseys labeled 'Northwestern' in what must have been an homage to their location within the state of California, couldn't shake the Badgers until a late surge pushed the game out of reach. Despite an admirable effort against their NBA counterparts, it became unclear which version of Wisconsin was legitimate: the one that rattled off sixteen victories to open the season, or the one that couldn't handle a pick-and-roll no matter the opponent. Fortunately, Wisconsin returned to form.
Act III: New Heights
It took a few weeks but the Badgers were able to right the ship in the face of adversity and close out the season with momentum, finishing tied for 2nd in the B1G and winning nine of their final eleven games, including notable victories against Michigan State, Michigan, and a second win over Iowa. From there, as we all know, Bo Ryan and his crew entered the NCAA tournament and made a historic run for Wisconsin.
After a dominant win over American to open tourney play, Wisconsin ran into a buzzsaw in Oregon. The Ducks seemingly couldn't miss and deflated the pro-Badger crowd in Milwaukee en route to a 12-point halftime lead. It was déjà vu all over again for Badger fans who have grown accustomed to unexpected tournament ousters at the hands of timely sharpshooters, but fortunately Wisconsin came out of the break on a mission, regaining the lead within the first ten minutes and never looking back.
After decimating Baylor's zone defense in their Sweet Sixteen matchup, all that stood in the way of Bo Ryan's first Final Four was top-seeded Arizona. Billed as a battle between the best coaches to never make a Final Four, someone had to break through their glass ceiling. What ensued was an instant classic, and in the end Wisconsin survived an absolute thriller to reach their first Final Four since 2000. If America didn't know about Frank Kaminsky before, they certainly did after his 28-point, 11-rebound performance had Charles Barkley singing his praises. It was a monumental win for a program and coach often lambasted for underperforming in the playoffs, as well as a fitting tribute to the late Butch Ryan on what would have been his 90th birthday. Students rushed to State Street to celebrate and Badger fans everywhere rejoiced.
And then Kentucky and /Harrison'd and yada yada.
All in all, the Badgers exceeded expectations this season. Not only was it just the second Final Four appearance for Wisconsin in over 70 years, but unlike the 2000 campaign it also really felt like they belonged this time. They faced the best of the best consistently throughout the season and usually came out on top, forming arguably the best collection of wins in the country this season. With seven of their eight key contributors returning, optimism is high for an encore.
Not much will change next season (only Ben Brust is giving up minutes and only incoming freshman SF Ethan Happ will come in to challenge current Badgers for those minutes), but recruiting next season will be the biggest indicator in whether or not the Badgers can maintain their elevated status. With Wisconsin losing Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, and Duje Dukan to graduation and possibly Sam Dekker to the NBA after next season, a strong recruiting class is critical. Fortunately, the Badgers are in the mix for some star recruits. Top 5 recruit and homegrown center Diamond Stone has UW on his shortlist, as does local 4-star PF Henry Ellenson. The Badgers are the favorite to land 4-star PF Josh Sharma and are in a two-horse race with archrival Minnesota for 4-star PG Jarvis Johnson. Securing a few of these recruits would go a long way in ensuring continued success for this program, but without factoring in all of that, it's a pretty good time to be a Badger.