Badgers lack basketball tradition, but not skill
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Bo Ryan unconvincingly insisted that he didn't notice thousands of Indiana students spilling wildly onto the Assembly Hall floor Wednesday night.
That's about as likely as not noticing a colonoscopy. But on the 1 percent chance Ryan was telling the truth, it's too bad the Wisconsin Badgers' coach missed the mayhem.
Because in defeat, his program entered a new realm of respect.
Given the long-term stature of Indiana and Wisconsin, this is like Lance Armstrong going all euphoric after outpedaling a neighborhood kid on a big wheel. Not only do the Hoosiers have all the history and tradition the Badgers lack, but they have absolutely owned the head-to-head matchup for more than half a century. Since 1950, Indiana leads the series 79-19, including a 31-game winning streak from 1980 to '96.
"You just can't imagine the irony of us watching Indiana fans storm the court after beating Wisconsin," said Badgers senior associate athletic director Vince Sweeney, who goes back to the 1950s with Badgers basketball.
But this isn't just about Indiana. Sweeney doesn't think anyone has stormed the court after beating Wisconsin. Ever.
"I can't ever recall that happening," he said.
Should the Badgers lose any of their four remaining road games, it could happen again. This is life in the spotlight, where opposing teams can't wait to give you their best shot and opposing fans can't wait to dance on the rare instances when you fall.
"It shows a lot of respect," said splendid forward Alando Tucker, whose national player of the year candidacy was not hurt by his 23-point, six-rebound performance. "It shows what we've done as a program."
What No. 2-ranked Wisconsin has done is inject itself into a Final Forecast debate alongside bluebloods like North Carolina and UCLA, and defending national champion Florida.
Read those names and ask yourself: Which one of these is not like the others?
Wave your paw, Bucky Badger.
Even the nouveau riche Gators have a better track record as a basketball power than the Badgers. They've been to three Final Fours between 1994 and 2006 (trumping Wisconsin's 2000 appearance), and have been ranked No. 1 several times this century.
Wisconsin has never been ranked No. 1, not even for a week. Prior to this season, it had never been ranked in the AP top five. The previous program high was a week at No. 6 in 1962.
There is an NCAA Tournament title nestled deep in Wisconsin's past. The year was 1941, the third year of the tourney's existence, and the team picture shows a bunch of guys wearing knee pads and socks with four thick stripes on each. Between 1947 and '94, the Badgers never went to the NCAA Tournament.
But historic ineptitude has given way to impressive consistency in recent times, and fan interest has followed.
Sweeney remembers well the sparsely attended games in the old UW Field House, a structure that opened in 1931 and served as the Badgers' home court until 1998.
"At the old field house, we had what we called the 'Faithful 5,000,' " Sweeney said. "We joked about going down there to unlock the door, turn on the lights and pop the popcorn at 5:30.
"Now, the last three seasons, all our tickets are sold out in advance in a 17,000-seat arena [the Kohl Center]. It's just a whole other ballgame."
The school that went 47 years without seeing the inside of the Big Dance will make its ninth straight trip this March. In Big Ten play, Michigan State and Wisconsin are the only teams without a losing league record each of the past eight seasons -- and at 4-4 this season, the Spartans' streak is in jeopardy while the Badgers are 7-1.
And no offense to the kneepad-wearing bunch from '41, but this might be the best team in school history.
Ryan has built his squad like a football program: Players redshirt routinely. Wisconsin has two fifth-year seniors and two fourth-year juniors, and two more freshmen are redshirting this season. In the future-is-now world of college basketball, it's difficult to find talented players who are willing to sit out a year and develop, but Ryan has benefited from it.
The starting lineup features three seniors and two juniors, a luxury by elite modern standards. Only one freshman is in the top nine in Ryan's rotation.
Given that level of experience, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising to see the Badgers running Ryan's patient, logic-based swing offense so well. A premium is put on getting the best shots available: Free throws are great, then field goals close to the basket, then perimeter shots.
Prior to the Indiana game, Wisconsin was shooting 27 free throws a game -- by far the most in the Big Ten. Seventy-two percent of the Badgers' field goal attempts were coming inside the arc, second-most in the league to Michigan State. And they take care of the ball so well (just 11.5 turnovers per game) that they get plenty of quality shots.
"When you're playing Wisconsin, you see exactly how they win," Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Their discipline, their shot selection, how tough they are."
The one thing Wisconsin has that pushes it beyond solid and into championship contender status is Tucker. He's nowhere near his listed 6-6, but he's still a dangerous scorer despite shooting less than 30 percent from 3-point range and less than 67 percent from the foul line. The key is versatility and an ability to get off (and make) an array of shots while tightly guarded.
"He's tough and strong like a bull," Indiana guard A.J. Ratliff said, after trying to guard Tucker much of the second half Wednesday night. "He makes plays around the basket, and it seemed like every time they needed a basket, the ball was in his hands. He's probably the hardest person in the country to guard right now. He has a post game, he drives and he finishes."
Now we'll see how Tucker and his teammates digest a loss. The bitter aftertaste can be a powerful motivator.
"Don't forget it," guard Michael Flowers said. "Don't forget the feeling when they rushed the court. Don't forget the excitement in the air when they knew they were going to win. That hurt. I really don't want to feel that again."
The previous time Wisconsin tasted defeat was Thanksgiving weekend, when the Badgers were beaten by two points on South Padre Island, Texas, by Missouri State.
"After our last loss we won, what, 15 in a row?" Flowers asked.
Actually it was 17. And if Wisconsin should put together another 17-game winning streak, that would be exactly enough to win the national championship: eight more regular-season games, three in the Big Ten tournament and six in the Big Dance.
"I would take that," Flowers said with a small smile.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.