The monkey is finally off Bo Ryan’s back. Since 2005, when the Badgers went to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion North Carolina, Ryan has coached one talented Wisconsin team after another into the NCAA Tournament. More often than not, they entered the bracket as a top-five seed, ostensibly one of the top 20 teams in the nation.
Yet every year, they have failed to get beyond the first few rounds, have failed to even reach the giddy highs of that 2004-05 season when Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker led the Badgers past Northern Iowa, Bucknell, and NC State. Every year Wisconsin has failed to reach its potential, failed to reach the second weekend when it seemed so close.
In 2007 it was UNLV that stunned Wisconsin. A year later, the Badgers were bested by Davidson, the Cinderella story of that year’s tournament. Xavier, Cornell, Butler, and Ole Miss would all deal Wisconsin knockout blows over the years.
Though he had four Division III championships to his name, and has reached the NCAA Tournament all 13 years he has led the program in Madison, Bo Ryan has been perceived as an underachiever when March Madness strikes. Maybe this year is the chance to finally shed the label; maybe Thursday’s emphatic win over Baylor is the chance to shift the story irreversibly in his favor once and for all.
The 2013-14 Wisconsin Badgers had already been on the roller coaster ride well before March rolled around. On February 1, they lost to Ohio State at home in a 59-58 heartbreaker; the team’s fifth loss in the past six games, it dropped Wisconsin to below .500 in Big Ten play. The losses, precipitated by illness throughout the roster, offered the opportunity to deal with adversity rather than raising expectations.
Even then, the Badgers would go 8-1 in their last nine games of the regular season, on the cusp of a top seed in the Tournament. A loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament proved detrimental to those dreams, but Ryan’s crew was still handed the second seed in the West Region.
They have used it to the fullest advantage. Against American in the opening round, the Badgers won by 40 in a 75-35 blowout. To this point, it is the largest margin of victory yet posted in the 2014 Tournament, a display of both offensive and defensive prowess that augured well for their hopes.
In the next round, they survived a shoddy first half against Oregon where they went into the locker room down 12. Reworking their strategy at halftime, Wisconsin flipped the script in the second frame to outscore the Ducks by 20 in the last 20 minutes for an 85-77 victory.
And now, with a resounding 69-52 win over Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen, Ryan’s team is back in the second weekend after eight seasons of big dreams and shattered potential. Frank Kaminsky, who was instrumental in the Oregon victory, responded again with 19 points and six blocked shots as Wisconsin ran away with the result. Senior guard Ben Brust and reserve freshman forward Nigel Hayes also finished in double digits for the Badgers, as they took a 13-point lead after the first 20 minutes and strung their lead out further in the closing minutes.
Now Ryan’s crew awaits the winner of Arizona and San Diego State. Whichever opponent they end up facing, the Badgers are on a hot streak that could take them to the team’s first Final Four appearance since Dick Bennett led them there in 2000.