NEW YORK — In the past two decades, through unconventional approach, Wisconsin has elevated itself to college sports royalty.
The men’s basketball team, under-seeded but no longer underrated, will play Friday night at Madison Square Garden against No. 4 Florida in the Sweet 16. This marks the fourth consecutive season Wisconsin has broken through to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. No other school can currently claim the same. And it’s the sixth time in the past seven years that Wisconsin’s made a Sweet 16 appearance — also the only team in college basketball to do so.
It’s hard enough to make consecutive regional semifinal showings. Wisconsin fans now expect to get there. The Badgers, of course, also made Final Four runs in 2014 and 2015 behind the play of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Bucky’s become a basketball mainstay, a program that’s in the tournament every year, thanks to a ridiculous run of 17 consecutive seasons of finishing fourth or higher in the Big Ten.
Yet Wisconsin, be it due to style or not winning a national championship for whatever reason, has been placed at the “good” or “pretty good” level of college sports. Time to change that.
The program, the school, the overall athletic entity that is Wisconsin is affirmatively great. You could argue it’s the best, made all the more emphatic by its fan base, a millions-deep army that travels as well as any continent and buttresses Bucky’s legitimacy as a national power. I’m not just talking hoops. Wisconsin is one of the rare universities that now boasts dual top-25 programs that can accurately be dubbed top-25 jobs (those distinctions are very different) in basketball and football. Fitting, then, that Wisconsin is facing Florida — which almost definitely rates as the best football/basketball combo school in college athletics.
Wisconsin doesn’t get near the respect or pub Florida does for its double-sport dominance, though. If you look at the past 20 years worth of consistency and accomplishment out of Madison, it’s startling. This is one of the overlooked and truly unexpected rises to prominence in the history of collegiate athletics.
From 1975-1995, Wisconsin had 15 losing seasons in basketball. The program didn’t make the tournament from 1948-1994! In football, prior to Barry Alvarez’s hire in 1990, Wisconsin was arguably one of the worst power-conference teams. It won no Big Ten titles from 1963-1993 and it went through five coaches, who combined to go 95-151 in that span.
“These guys, 15-year-olds in Wisconsin, they only know the tournament,” Badgers assistant Joe Krabbenhoff, who starred at UW, told CBS Sports. “You ask the older people in the state, they’ll tell you it wasn’t anything like this.”
It’s an entirely different school now. Reliability is saved for the richest in college sports, and even then programs can occasionally come up empty. But Wisconsin, though plenty funded and a Big Ten machine in myriad ways, is not among the plutocrats. Yet it seems immune to unlucky breaks.
“I can’t say I’m surprised, I can say I’m proud,” Alvarez, now the AD at UW, told CBS Sports. “We have a theory, a method, our guys have followed it and our players have responded. Twenty years ago, yes, I’d say that, that I was surprised. But the guys we’ve had recently, our players who come it, they expect it.”
Wisconsin’s current streak of 15 straight seasons playing in a bowl game and the Big Dance is an all-time NCAA record — by four years — outpacing the second-best mark, Texas’ run from 1999-2010. (Florida made the tournament and a bowl game every year from 1999-2007, which ties Michigan State for third longest in history.)
That group right there fills up the trio of ideal nominees for best football/basketball programs since the turn of the century: Florida, Texas, Michigan State. All make sense. But Wisconsin is right there. Arguably, now, the best.
“We’re different than maybe Texas [and Florida],” Alvarez said. “Michigan State might be similar to us. We know who we are. We have a formula how we recruit and how we can win. We don’t get out ahead of ourselves. We value our state and our state athletes first in recruiting them and making sure that they’re top priority for us. But we’re a developmental program. We’re not a school that’s going to get one-and-done ins basketball, because they’re not accessible to us. We develop players and so we find guys that fit our mold and fit our profile and we may take a three-star and make him a five-star in two years.”
This Sweet 16 streak has tied the Big Ten record, and since the College Football Playoff began, Wisconsin is one of two schools (Michigan State being the other, in 2015) to make a New Year’s Six bowl and the Sweet 16 in the same season. More over, this isn’t merely about postseason appearances: Wisconsin’s won a bowl game and made the Sweet 16 in three straight seasons. How rare is that? Michigan State did it from 2012-2015, and the only other program to match the feat is Notre Dame — in the late 1970s.
It is extremely hard to be exceptionally good and year-over-year reliable in the two college sports that matter most. Yet Wisconsin’s a modern blueblood. This has been done, in part, because Alvarez is dead set on making sure his football coach, Paul Chryst, and basketball coach, Greg Gard, don’t get bogged down by anything that isn’t totally biotic to coaching their respective sports.
“We hold high standards for them,” Alvarez said. “But coaches only have to worry about coaching, players only how they play. I don’t want them to have to have any responsibility during their seasons outside of their coaching. … I want them to coach.”
Wisconsin’s 15 straight seasons with a bowl game showing and an NCAA Tournament ticket far outpaces the rest of college athletics, you just wouldn’t realize it until someone put the stats in front of you. Bucky’s been doing this for 15 years. Baylor and North Carolina are second in the streak — at four apiece. And since 1996, Wisconsin has the most combined bowl games and tourney appearances, with 40, bettering Florida’s 35, then Texas and Michigan State’s 34.
Plus, Bucky is in its 19th straight NCAA Tournament, a feat that is currently tied with Gonzaga for the fourth-longest active tourney streak in history. (Kansas has gone to 28 straight and counting. You’ll notice all three of this teams are, unsurprisingly, still in the field.)
Given the way Bo Ryan recruited — the way Wisconsin still, almost in a defiant way, recruits a specific type of player — the system has won out. Gard has taken the reigns from Ryan and managed to keep this program on the top shelf. It hasn’t been smooth, and in fact reaching Sweet 16s is what helps keep Wisconsin’s reputation sterling.
“You don’t take it for granted, you’re not entitled to anything and nothing is guaranteed,” Gard told CBS Sports. “Our players could have easily scattered last year, in mid-December, in 17 different ways. Things weren’t going well, we weren’t a very good team, we weren’t [in sync] and obviously you have a Hall of Fame coach retire — everything was tipped upside-down.”
That was in good part because of Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, then-juniors who played critical roles on the Final Four squads the two years prior. Koenig hit the killer from the corner that got UW to the Sweet 16 last year, vs. Xavier, then brought back his onion tote for 2017 by hitting huge shots in the first two rounds. And, of course, Hayes had the biggest play of this tournament so far, his Michael Jordan-inspired fake-and-twist on the baseline to beat the reigning national champions.
“If you don’t have good people around you, it doesn’t matter what happens, what I say, what I try to do,” Gard said. “We talk about that a lot. You can’t have one foot on the dock, one foot in the boat. You better have both hands on an oar — not to steal anything from [Minnesota football coach] PJ Fleck. I’m not going to say ‘row the boat,’ but the idea is we all have to be in this together. We knew we’d have growing pains.”
Things could have gone sideways, but they didn’t. As has been the case for decades now, things just worked themselves out at Wisconsin. It’s not a sexy program and doesn’t produce stars or NBA picks on an annual basis, but it has become more than consistent. This school is now as dependable and successful, in the two sports that matter most, as anyone else in the country.