To call Wisconsin basketball through the 80s and early 90s bad would be an understatement. Under Steve Yoder the Badgers amassed a record of 128-165 overall and 50-130 in conference play. The 2 highlights of this run from 1982-1992 were 2 appearances in the NIT (where in both seasons Wisconsin managed going 8-10 in conference play). Facilities were antiquated - the Badgers played their home games at that time in the old Wisconsin Fieldhouse - and basketball was just something to do on nights when the Badgers' hockey team wasn't playing. But around about the time football was 'discovered' in Madison, basketball was likewise discovered as well.
For 3 seasons a couple of coaches who would go on to notoriety in the NBA - Stu Jackson and Stan Van Gundy - stopped off in Madison. Jackson got Wisconsin to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1947 in 1994, and Van Gundy held down the fort with a lackluster-but-not-unusual (for Wisconsin) 13-14 mark (7-11 in conference play) for 1994-95. These 3 seasons set the stage for a true turn-around; which began w/ the hiring of Van Gundy's replacement as head coach.
Dick Bennett had amazed a 360-189 record at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Green Bay before taking the Badgers head coaching position in 1995. Bennett's forte was a deliberate pace offensively and his 'pack-line' defense; a defense designed to clog up dribble driving lanes and force jump shots. Additionally, Bennett stressed that his players primary goal is making their teammates better. While 49-48 basketball games might not exactly seem like something new and exciting; winning these games would represent a welcome change for fans in Madison.
Bennett’s first season in Madison was a seemingly mediocre 17-15; however, the Badgers again went 8-10 in conference play (just the fourth time in 22 seasons Wisconsin managed this). For 1996-97 the results were more pronounced: 18-10 overall, 11-7 in conference play (Wisconsin's best Big Ten mark since 1946-47), and a fourth place finish in the B1G standings (the best since 1973-74). The Badgers also earned just their second NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946-47; however, they lost in the round of 64. There was some regression for 1997-98 - a 12-19 (3-13) mark - but that was an aberration as Wisconsin notched their first 20-win season since the 1941 National Championship by going 22-10 (9-7) in 1998-99 and returning to the NCAA Tournament (but again losing in the round of 64).
1999-2000 would prove to be the big turn-around for Wisconsin basketball. The season didn't get off to the best of starts, including nonconference losses to South Florida and Northern Illinois. After a February 12 loss at #6 Michigan State the Badgers stood at 13-12 and 5-8 in conference play. Wisconsin then went on a 5-game winning streak including victories over the #14 Hooisers in the regular season finale (where the Wisconsin fans stormed onto the Kohl Center's court as Bobby Knight stormed off the court) and #22 Purdue in the B1G Tournament Semi-Finals. This got Wisconsin into the 2000 NCAA Tournament as a #8 seed in the West Region.
In the round of 64 Wisconsin defeated #9 seed Fresno State 66-56, setting up a round of 32 game against #1 seed Arizona. Utilizing Bennett's deliberate pace and pack-line defense the Badgers took a 28-23 halftime lead. There was more scoring in the second half; however, Wisconsin held on to notch a 66-59 victory. Advancing the Sweet 16 in Albuquerque the Badgers defeated LSU 61-48; setting up an Elite 8 match-up against Purdue to advance to the Final 4. In their 3 previous meetings (2 regular season and Big Ten Tournament) Wisconsin had defeated Purdue twice. The Badgers luck held out in match-up #4 as they knocked off the Boilermakers 64-60 to advance to the Final 4 in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin’s season came to an end with a 51-43 loss to eventual National Champion Michigan State in the national semi-finals (which was the Badgers fourth loss to the Spartans that season, including the Big Ten Tournament). This Final 4 appearance proved to be a springboard for an era of very good men’s basketball; however, Dick Bennett would not be the Badgers’ head coach. Citing burn-out Bennett resigned following a 78-75 overtime Wisconsin victory over Maryland in the 2000 ACC / Big 10 Challenge.
Bo Ryan took over for Dick Bennett for the 2001-02 season and the results speak for themselves: 4 Big 10 regular season championships, 3 Big 10 Tournament championships, 14 straight NCAA Tournaments, 9 Sweet 16s, 3 Elite 8s, and 2 Final 4s. However, it was the 2000 Final 4 under Dick Bennett that caused basketball to be ‘discovered’ in Madison.