The Badgers may be fading off into the sunset now, but as long as head coach Bo Ryan is around, they will be back at this time next year.
Perhaps we shouldn't ask these questions so soon after a loss.
In a poll of B5Q readers, 65 percent have said they are not satisfied with the Badgers' 25-9 season that ended with a loss to Butler in the Sweet 16.
My only question for those of you who responded this way is: Really?
Readers do know there are 346 teams in NCAA Division I basketball, right? That only 68 make the tournament and just 16 of those 68 win the necessary two (or three) games against other elite competitors to get to the regional round, right? That teams seeded fourth, like Wisconsin, face either a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16 or a team good enough to beat a team seeded No. 1, right? That Wisconsin wasn't even projected to finish in the top half of the Big Ten this season, let alone be one of only two teams in the conference still standing after two tournament games.
In addition to the disconcerting portrait of Badger fans' mentality painted by our poll, I received an e-mail from a close friend this morning with some well-researched facts designed to illustrate what I think is a flawed conclusion, that somehow Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan has underachieved in the postseason.
The crux of my friend's argument seemed to be that the last five teams to knock the Badgers out of the NCAA Tournament have not been teams from power conferences.
I did some research of my own to find out just how "bad" these losses to teams like Butler, Cornell, Xavier, Davidson and UNLV have been. Here is what I discovered:
Butler came into Thursday's game fresh off a win over No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, the best team in arguably the best conference in the country. It remains to be seen whether the Bulldogs will knock off No. 2 seed Florida on their way to their second straight Final Four. They are the defending national runners-up and essentially only lost one player from last year. Butler underachieved during the regular season the same way we see national runners-up in almost every sport underachieve during the following regular season.
Cornell did the same thing to No. 5 seed Temple as they did to No. 4 seed Wisconsin in 2010. The Big Red played its best game of the year against the Badgers and shot 53 percent from 3-point land, its highest percentage from 3 in any tournament game it's ever played in. No team in the country was beating Cornell on that day.
Xavier has made 20 tournament appearances since 1983. To say they are a "non-power conference team" is deliberately misleading. Wisconsin was a No. 12 seed in 2009, while Xavier was a No. 4 seed. It is not genuine to toss this game into an argument that the Badgers lose too many games to "mid-majors." In the last four years, Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota have all lost NCAA Tournament games to Xavier. Since 2004, Xavier has been to the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight twice.
Davidson did the same thing to No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 seed Gonzaga as they did to No. 3 seed Wisconsin in 2008. The Wildcats then came within two points of beating Kansas for a trip to the Final Four. The Jayhawks went on to win the National Championship. Davidson's starting point guard that season now plays in the NBA and is pretty good - you may have heard of him. While Davidson College may be small, bemoaning Wisconsin's loss to the 2008 Wildcats is asinine.
UNLV has made 17 tournament appearances since 1975 and won the 1990 National Championship. This is another case where the term "mid-major" is a misnomer. There is a stronger basketball tradition at UNLV than at more than half the schools in the Big Ten. UNLV came into its game with Wisconsin in 2007 having knocked off Georgia Tech from the ACC. After the Rebels' win over the Badgers, they lost by four points to the Pac-10 tournament champions. UNLV was good enough to earn a No. 7 seed from the selection committee, despite not playing in a power conference. You may also remember that Wisconsin's leading rebounder, third-leading scorer and post defender Brian Butch was injured in the final game of the regular season, allowing very little time for the team to adjust to his absence.
So, given that Wisconsin has not been the only victim of these often underseeded and highly successful teams, why the angst over the losses? The idea that Ryan's teams only get bounced by this "brand" of team is far from the truth. In his first five years as head coach, the Badgers saw their tournament runs end to Maryland, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Arizona. If that's not a "who's who" of college basketball, historically, then I don't know what is.
Wisconsin is 14-11 in the NCAA Tournament under Ryan. Those 14 wins have come against a variety of teams, from power conference squads (St. John's, NC State, Kansas State twice, Florida State) to, yes, hot mid-majors (Weber State, Tulsa, Richmond, Northern Iowa, Bucknell, Texas A&M-CC, Cal State Fullerton, Wofford, and Belmont).
But it seems as if Bo only takes blame when the Badgers fail to beat tournament teams and not credit when they do. I'm sure Kansas fans wish they had a coach who could get past Bucknell and Northern Iowa. Think Vanderbilt fans would take a guy who could win over Richmond? If beating a low seed in the first round is so easy, how come Wisconsin was the only No. 4 seed in 2011 that didn't struggle to do so? While the Badgers handled trendy upset pick Belmont, Kentucky and Texas saw their games with Princeton and Oakland come down to the wire and Louisville lost to Morehead State.
It's the NCAA Tournament. There are no easy games. That Badger fans are so outraged and embarrassed over the indignity of bowing out of the Big Dance in the same round as Duke only speaks to how far Bo Ryan has brought the Wisconsin program over the past decade.
That Final Four run we all yearn for will come. While Ryan is an older coach, this was only his 12th year in Division I. It took Mike Krzyzewski 13 seasons to reach his first Final Four. Before he did, he had made just four tournament appearances and reached one Sweet 16. Rick Barnes made his first Final Four in his 16th season, and his location in Texas pretty much guarantees him the pick of the litter when it comes to recruiting talent. Jamie Dixon has yet to take Pittsburgh to a Final Four and the Panthers draw a favorable seed nearly every year. Matt Painter has never taken Purdue past the Sweet 16.
It is hard to do. It involves a complex combination of factors: team health, drawing the right seed, shots going in, lucking into favorable matchups.
Bo Ryan won 25 games this season. His team kept Kohl Center fans happy, going undefeated there, beat the No. 1 team in the country for the second time in program history and made it to the Sweet 16 in his 10th straight tournament appearance.
He is doing it all at a school that had made just seven total tournament appearances in its history prior to his arrival, in a state that does not produce much basketball talent.
His way is working. As long as he remains the head coach, the Badgers will have a chance, and it is only a matter of time before they give us a run we will never forget.