In the wake of Cornell's thrashing of the Badgers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday, there is a lot of talk about whether or not the 2009-10 UW men's basketball season was a successful one.
It's a great question.
On one hand a team that was predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten and struggle to make the NCAA Tournament, beat the likes of Duke, Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State -- all of which are in the Sweet 16 -- en route to a No. 4 seed in its 12th straight NCAA appearance. On the other hand, a team with readjusted expectations to win the Big Ten title, win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the Final Four took major steps backward at key times and failed to accomplish any of those goals.
So are we supposed to praise the Badgers for overachieving or judge them for a disappointing late-season swoon?
Maybe it's time for Badger fans to demand more from Bo Ryan.
Sure, nine straight NCAA appearances (12 in a row for the program) are impressive, but a 2-6 second round tournament record is not. Bo Ryan has built the Wisconsin program into one of the country's most consistently successful ones, but it will never become elite until it does more in March.
It's simple. With success comes expectations and it's fair for any Badger fan to expect more than heartbreaking losses to 7th-seeded UNLV in 2007, 10th-seeded Davidson in 2008 and 12th-seeded Cornell Sunday.
What we see every year from Bo Ryan is a team that overachieves by beating good teams at the Kohl Center and competes for a conference title against coaches and players they know like the back of their hand. Once the Badgers step outside the Kohl Center bubble and the Big Ten bubble, a very average squad emerges. One that can't play with the nation's elite and can't step up its game against sharp-shooting mid-majors that don't care how good of a defense they are playing against while they splash 30-foot threes in like it's nothing.
Sometimes -- and most of the time outside the Big Ten -- winning basketball games comes down to making shots. I can't tell you how many times I heard about "making shots" from UW coaches and players in the last few weeks while Wisconsin got hot against Indiana, Iowa and Illinois and then got locked in a freezer against Illinois in Indy, Wofford and Cornell.
We saw a team wearing red Sunday that frankly didn't care much about their own defense or the defense it was playing against. Cornell just cared about making shots and advancing. It was simple.
Bo Ryan's formula of playing great defense, not turning the ball over, winning the rebounding margin and making more free throws than the opponent attempts works like clockwork in the Kohl Center. Unfortunately the Badgers don't get to play postseason games in Madison.
It's no fluke that Wisconsin beat the Spartans, Buckeyes and Boilermakers at the Kohl Center but lost to all three of them on the road. It's also no fluke that UW beat Duke this season in Madison, but got blown out at Cameron Indoor Stadium two years ago.
So how does Bo take the next step? Well, it comes down to the same thing I wrote about before the Badgers played their first game this season: recruiting. At some point, Wisconsin just needs guys that can simply put the ball in the basket.
And you might say, "But Adam, it's not like UNLV, Davidson and Cornell were loaded with five-star recruits."
My response to that is, "Yeah, that's why they didn't make the Final Four either." (We'll see about Cornell, which by the way is a more complete team than both UNLV and Davidson, but I would still be surprised if they can get by Kentucky and West Virginia.)
The bottomline is that Bo Ryan has won the Big Ten, he's won the Big Ten Tournament, he's made the Elite Eight and he puts a competitive team on the floor year in and year out. But here we are again talking about a team that fell short of the Final Four.
It's hard to say this was an unsuccessful season, but there is zero hardware to show for it -- not even a Maui Invitational championship trophy. There's no doubt this year's team was better than last year's, but when it comes down to it, neither team won the Big Ten, both lost in the first round of the conference tournament and both lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
So what's the difference? Not much.
Next year, Jon Leuer will return as a pre-season All-American candidate and Jordan Taylor takes over an offense with a chance to become the best point guard in the league. But UW will once again have major holes to fill and right now it's hard to argue that those holes will be filled with players capable of making the Badgers a Final Four team.
Could Wisconsin be good enough to win the Big Ten next year? Yes. Should they stretch UW's NCAA Tournament appearance streak to 13? Yes. But will they be good enough to make a Final Four run?
Well, there's a lot of work to do.