Friday, July 27, 2012

The former future (the present) is amazing from the standpoint of the past

Fifteen years ago—on March 8, 1997—Adam invited me to join him for the Badger basketball team's home finale (their last home finale in the Field House) against #2-ranked Minnesota. The Badgers were on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, and most believed they needed a victory to get into the Big Dance. (In those days, before the Big Ten Tournament, there were no second chances).

It was a thrilling game, or at least that's how I remember it. Ty Calderwood won it for Wisconsin with two free throws in the final seconds. As time ran out, the fans rushed the floor. Matt Lepay's call, apparently, was: "The Badgers are dancing! The Badgers are dancing! In 1997! And the Field House is UP FOR GRABS!!"

We were there, on the floor, even though we had to come down from the upper deck. I got to give David Burkemper a high-five. (It was a special moment.) After 47 years between trips to the Tourney, and then the abomination of Stan Van Gundy's failure to make even the NIT with Rashard Griffith and Michael Finley on the roster, the Badgers were back in the tournament in Dick Bennett's second year.

Who could have imagined, on that day in 1997, how the fates of the Wisconsin and Minnesota basketball programs would turn? Wisconsin went on that year to get whooped by Texas in the First Round, and Minnesota went to the Final Four. But in reality, the tide had already turned. Minnesota's wins that year were wiped from the record books due to the academic fraud scandal that brought down Clem Haskins's program a few years later. And Dick Bennett's five-year plan eventually culminated in the greatest three-week stretch of Wisconsin sporting history (followed immediately by a rather dreary 40-minute stretch), the run to the Final Four in 2000.

I started thinking of that day after looking into the performance of Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament in this century. Wisconsin has won 20 NCAA-tournament games since 2000. Only eight teams—Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky, Florida, UCONN, and UCLA—have won more. Wisconsin also has been to six Sweet 16s this century, which is kind of mind-boggling when you say it aloud.

On the other hand, Minnesota has won ... zero tournament games this century. ZERO. And this isn't a technicality of wiped-out records. Minnesota hasn't even had a win wiped away since their run to the Final Four in 1997. That's right—the last time we even thought Minnesota won a tournament game was in 1997, back when David Burkemper's sweat was still coating my unwashed hand. Minnesota is one of only twelve major conference teams with no tourney wins this century.

To put this in perspective, in the 11 years of the Bo Ryan era, Wisconsin has at least one tourney win every year except 2006.

What to make of this? I don't know. I just know I love Bo Ryan.

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