It has been said before that people don’t appreciate what they have until it’s gone. And given where Wisconsin’s basketball team stands during the second week of January, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on what that means for the Badgers and their fan base.
In each of the past 19 college basketball seasons, Wisconsin has been a staple in the NCAA Tournament. That remarkable run of sustained success ranks as tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the country, behind Kansas (28 straight), Duke (22) and Michigan State (20). Gonzaga also has appeared in 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments.
But after Wisconsin’s latest loss, a 63-59 setback at Nebraska on Tuesday night, it certainly appears as though the Badgers’ annual appearance in the Big Dance is approaching an end. Wisconsin is now 9-9 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten. It would require a miraculous finish in the final 13 regular season games and the conference tournament for the Badgers to change their postseason fortunes.
Unlike the Wisconsin team two seasons ago that opened 9-9 and 1-4 in league play before rallying to reach the Sweet 16, the current iteration appears to lack both the personnel and offensive diversity to surge down the stretch. Two of the Badgers’ top four guards are out with injuries, three scholarship juniors in the frontcourt can’t earn significant minutes and three walk-ons or former walk-ons are now playing in the regular rotation. Add up all those deficiencies, and it’s simply too much to overcome, even though players and coaches will fight until the bitter end.
This does not mean Wisconsin basketball is headed into the tank, reverting back toward the program that for 47 years wasn’t good enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Greg Gard has a great opportunity to lead the Badgers back to the Big Dance next season given how many players return, although an additional recruit or graduate transfer could enhance the team’s fortunes. But, for one season at least, Wisconsin is allowed a rebuilding year.
Rather than lament what hasn’t happened this season, however, let’s celebrate what has happened over the past two decades. Because playing at such a high level for so long isn’t easy.
After Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Gonzaga, the longest active NCAA tournament streak stands at seven seasons. That mark belongs to VCU, Cincinnati and North Carolina. Even the bluest of blueblood college basketball teams have fallen on occasional bad fortune and bad play.
North Carolina missed the NCAA Tournament in 2009-10 under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, when the Tar Heels were 16-16, finished 5-11 in the ACC and lost in the first round of the conference tournament. The Tar Heels closed 20-17 with a defeat in the NIT championship game.
Kentucky missed the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13 under Hall of Fame coach John Calipari. The Wildcats finished 21-12 and lost in the first round of the NIT.
UCLA missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015-16 by finishing 15-17 and didn’t appear in any postseason tournament.
Villanova won the national championship in 2016. In 2012, the Wildcats were 13-19. Connecticut won a national title in 2014. The following season, the Huskies missed the NCAA Tournament and were bounced in the first round of the NIT. These things happen.
Wisconsin’s streak began during the 1998-99 season, when former Badgers coach Dick Bennett led the team to a 22-10 record and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin fans would like to forget that awful 43-32 loss to No. 12 seed Southwest Missouri State, but at least the Badgers qualified.
Bennett took No. 8 seed Wisconsin on a magical run to the Final Four in 2000, when the likes of Mark Vershaw, Andy Kowski, Jon Bryant, Roy Boone, Duany Duany, Mike Kelley and Co. captivated the nation. Brad Soderberg did enough as interim coach in 2001 to keep the NCAA Tournament train rolling, but Georgia State bounced Wisconsin in the first round.
Bo Ryan then guided Wisconsin to a surprising share of the Big Ten title in 2002 and yet another spot in the NCAA Tournament. In his 14 full seasons, Wisconsin became a yearly staple in the madness of March, with his final two teams reaching the national semifinal and the national final. We witnessed what is quite likely the greatest Wisconsin team in history during 2014-15, when future first-round NBA draft picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker helped bury undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four and bring the Badgers to the brink of a title.
In the past two seasons, Gard has carried the NCAA Tournament torch by reaching two Sweet 16s. Wisconsin is the only team in the country to reach the Sweet 16 or better in each of the last four seasons.
The Badgers have also advanced to the Sweet 16 or better in six of the last seven seasons. No other team in the nation has gone more frequently over that span. Since 2002, Wisconsin’s 29 NCAA Tournament games played is tied for the most in the Big Ten with Michigan State.
Those are a lot of numbers to say that, while this season hasn’t progressed in the way many hoped, it’s been a pretty good run overall for Wisconsin’s basketball program. And next season, the Badgers just might start a new NCAA Tournament streak.