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March Madness 2015: So just how far has Wisconsin basketball come?

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The bulk of the NCAA tournament is still to be played, but the Badgers' effort in Thursday's Sweet 16 game could be program-altering.

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There is much discussion this week about how far these Wisconsin Badgers must go in the NCAA tournament for the 2014-15 season to be considered a "success." There's a very small minority that would be relatively OK with a loss to North Carolina, and a just slightly larger one that will be just as OK with a loss to (potentially) Arizona in the West regional final.

Don't know any of those folks, but that's where the question is for now: is another Final Four enough? Anything short of the national title?

Given the strength of this team relative to its present competition, and the goals that were set by last season, it's pretty difficult to accept anything less than another Final Four, and perhaps a loss in a (potential) battle royale against what would be a still-undefeated Kentucky. At the risk (probably yet again) of betraying age and experience, that these questions can be debated is a sign of monumental progress by Wisconsin's program.

Last season, there was still a strong element of surprise when the Badgers blew out a strong, tall and athletic Baylor team in the Sweet 16, and then outlasted a star-studded No. 1 seed Arizona to punch their ticket to Dallas. Although the team began its season with 16 straight wins, a mid-season slump and a sketchy semifinal loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament left some serious doubts. There was legitimate wonder whether it would be another Bo Ryan team that failed to live up to its seed against a mid-major upstart, or that came up just short against one of the bluebloods.

Nope. After his players gutted out a virtual homecourt comeback against Oregon to get to the Sweet 16, Ryan and his team finally broke through on the second weekend. Even though they did eventually fall to a (low-seeded) blueblood, it was in a national semifinal and after winning a regional title. A Final Four is now on Ryan's career resume; he, and maybe Wisconsin basketball, won't be seen the same way again.

This season, with only one player lost from last year's rotation, the lofty goals for this season then became totally and completely reasonable. Maybe the conference regular-season title was something of an inevitability, especially given the competition this year, as was the conference tournament. These are trophy-case achievements, but they were still pretty much expected. The Big Dance, and a rematch with Kentucky (let alone with Oregon already, and probably Arizona -- nice job, committee), was always, and remains, where this team will make its mark.

The last time Wisconsin faced North Carolina in the second weekend of the tournament was Easter Sunday of 2005, with Ryan's fourth team. That team overcame a tough Northern Iowa squad in a Nos. 6-11 matchup to open the tournament, but later benefitted in its region from Bucknell's upset of No. 3 seed Kansas and then N.C. State's upset of No. 2 seed UConn. Given their fortuitous opponents, they made the Elite Eight by doing exactly what they were supposed to.

That team, which featured star senior Mike Wilkinson, future star and redshirt sophomore Alando Tucker and a bench full of future stalwarts (Kam Taylor, Greg Stiemsma, Brian Butch), did indeed take the Tarheels to the limit before falling 88-82. Those Badgers were the first of North Carolina's three successive Big Ten pelts on the wall on the way to the national title (Michigan State in the Final Four and Illinois in the final). That season remained -- until last season, along with 2007 -- a high watermark of the Ryan era and is remembered more for what might have been had Devin Harris not left early.

The 2007 season was an even bigger "what might have been," considering the Badgers' good luck in their 2005 tournament draw. In 2007, Wisconsin held its first No. 1 poll ranking ever, only to lose it within week. Later, Butch's injury relegated Wisconsin to basically also-ran status behind Ohio State, whom the Badgers had beaten in Madison earlier in the season. The Badgers' romp through the Big Ten the following year, with a fully healthy Butch (but no Tucker, who graduated), helped only slightly until the postseason, when Davidson and Stephen Curry dispatched Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, the first of several mid-major upsets to come.

Sweet 16s are close to "expected" now; "death, taxes and Bo Ryan" is a thing, after all, and not just among Wisconsin fans.

You get the picture -- and there's no need to re-visit what happened before that 2000 Final Four, or before 1994's return to the Big Dance after a nearly 50-year absence. This is now Wisconsin's seventh Sweet 16 appearance under Ryan. Sweet 16s are close to "expected" now; "death, taxes and Bo Ryan" is a thing, after all, and not just among Wisconsin fans. After last season's breakthrough, the standard was raised even further. A lot of disappointment was expatiated last year, but that team wasn't really expected to be there. It got to the Final Four by playing at the top of its game, and that nearly got Wisconsin by Kentucky, too.

Even so, 2014 will still be a "what might have been" given that Kentucky, a No. 8 seed, was eminently beatable and Wisconsin simply came up against Andrew Harrison's almost otherworldly run of late-game, long-range bombs. He's back this year, though, along with twin brother Aaron and big man Willie Cauley-Stein, a rare instance for coach John Calipari. Plus, Kentucky is tempting history -- the Wildcats haven't lost yet in 36 games and are seeking the first undefeated season since 1976. Will Kentucky stand in the way of yet another Wisconsin breakthrough this year?

UW's players have said nothing to suggest they don't see things the same way, and they haven't acted like it, either. They've given fans no reason to think that anything short of righting the last 15 seconds of last season was their bar this season. The change of attitude on everyone's part speaks volumes for the program and the way it's followed, appreciated and perceived.

That a national championship is truly within sight, and no one sees this as outlandish? Unreasonable a few years ago. Unthinkable a few decades ago. That's some serious progress.