Is not March the most prime of months in the sports calendar? College basketball may dominate for many, but there's plenty more the sports cornucopia has to offer the Wisconsin Badgers sports fan. This year is a little different, with men's hoops at a historic high and men's hockey at a historic low, but it's still the time when the thrill of anticipation is the order of the day. Before month's end, when the thrill gives way in most cases to realization -- some of it bitter -- but hopefully most of it gratifying.
Last week, this space was about savoring the flavor of a regular season championship in men's basketball. Since then, the team a) won the championship outright with a sound road win over rival Minnesota, and b) finished the regular season with a complete dismantling of another rival on its home floor -- a ranked Ohio State on Senior Night that had lost just nine home games in five years. In resounding fashion, the flavors to savor have just kept coming.
The awards season began, too, with Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Josh Gasser racking up conference and national accolades from several outlets. Kaminsky, of course, has already been anointed the Big Ten's best player, and some have tabbed him as the nation's best. Bo Ryan has at least one Coach of the Year honor. More are sure to come.
The Big Ten Tournament also begins this week in Chicago with Wisconsin having earned the double-bye as its top seed. With a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed still potentially at stake, no one should expect the Badgers to let up starting Friday. This tournament should be similar to 2008, when Wisconsin took its No. 1 seed the distance, rolling an overmatched No. 10 seed Illinois in the final and taking its second tourney title.
If Wisconsin can get its third Big Ten Tournament title win, Selection Sunday may culminate with that No. 1 seed. Most now see this version of the Badgers (rightly so) as the best that's ever been. The only question is how many games they'll have to play until this season's success can be enjoyed without qualification. After a 28-3 regular season, will it be three wins by Sunday, and another six wins after that?
The all-time high level excitement around men's basketball contrasts sharply this March with the all-time low level of disappointment with men's hockey, which is 4-24-4 overall, and 2-12-2-2 in the Big Ten. In most years, Wisconsin hockey fans are enjoying the regular season home stretch, and eyeing a potential run through the NCAA Tournament. At this time last year, fans were about to see the Badgers take their No. 2 seed to the inaugural Big Ten tournament title.
The 2014-15 season for Badgers hockey has been a horror show of generational proportions. Opinions vary as to the reasons, but fans have never seen a team that will struggle to get to five wins total this season, and any more than two wins in the 21 games they are guaranteed against the five other Big Ten teams. Talent acquisition, development, and deployment have all been questioned. The biggest question has to be when will it end? Not just this season (that's pretty definitive), but this malaise.
If you want a more traditional March in hockey, then look no further than the Wisconsin women's team, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation. Coach Mark Johnson has the program humming along, with this year's senior class grabbing their first WHCA title this past weekend, and in hot pursuit of a national title. Featuring stars such as Blayre Turnbull, Brittany Ammerman, Karley Sylvester, Annie Pankowski, and Sarah Nurse, as well as goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens, they will host on Boston University this Saturday in an NCAA quarterfinal. Given that Pankowski, Nurse, and Desbiens are freshmen or sophomores, the future looks bright, too. On this side of the LaBahn, March is indeed sweet, if not much more "normal."
It has been a normal March for women's basketball. Which is to say, the team is done playing for the season. The team's record this year, 12-20 overall (6-12 in Big Ten), isn't nearly enough to play on. Last week's kick in the gut against Purdue in the Big Ten tournament spelled the end. When Lisa Stone and her lengthy record of limited post season success were let go after the 2011 season, it was reasonably believed that Bobbie Kelsey, the former Stanford assistant who helped take the Cardinal to four Final Fours in four years, would move Wisconsin forward. Key injuries from season to season haven't helped, and Kelsey's recruiting hasn't been terrible, but her teams have finished 11th in the Big Ten the last three seasons -- with of course, no post season play. For several years now, March just hasn't been kind for women's hoops at Wisconsin.
March is just for anticipation as the first spring football practice opens this Sunday. Maybe the best part of spring football is that there's no finality to it. It's only just a time to see who's playing where and how some newer or older players -- or a new coaching staff -- might look when the season starts in fall. There's not much to take away, but it's enough to soothe a craving. Whether the Badgers will be able to improve on a 10-2 regular season, Big Ten West division title, and their first bowl win since 2009 can be further pondered on in August.
This March though, the Paul Chryst era begins in earnest. His staff is now complete, and we'll be able get a glimpse into how his first depth chart might look -- then invariably head off into the land of wild speculation, hype, and hope. We might gain some insight into where (and when) Tanner McEvoy might play; who might be the No. 2 quarterback, tailback, or strong safety; or who might play right offensive tackle, inside linebacker, punter, punt returner, or kickoff returner. Then again, although talk and write we as will, we know those questions will have to wait until fall for any real definition.
When you throw in major league baseball and spring training, and the fact that March Madness actually began last week with the first conference tournaments, you'll have the full picture of March as sports nirvana. For Wisconsin fans, March has been pretty nice of late. Even though not all Wisconsin teams are in a riptide, times are very good for women's hockey, and hope springs anew in football. Of course for men's basketball, this could be the best March ever. And lest anyone forget, this winter may finally be over. March has that, too.