You don't ever want to quote Ray Zalinsky in Tommy Boy when describing a regular season championship in college basketball, but when you consider the long-arc history of this team, there's some wisdom in that command. (Author's note: At 5:27 in the clip. Apologies, or not, as the case may be, from the author.)
History is an interesting word to use this season, what with the seeming inevitably this conference championship seemed to have (along with another crack at Kentucky sometime in the next four or five weeks, which is another story). These conference championships, though, they just don't come along very often.
True, it hasn't been a banner year for the conference as a whole. Traditional powers Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Illinois have been inconsistent or just down. Purdue put together a nice rebound season but hasn't been ranked a single week. Iowa has been a yo-yo -- they should now close out with two losses if the pattern holds. Wisconsin was a unanimous choice to win the league, and they did just that. Not ever easy, but with these peers, it was expected. It always seemed inevitable.
The last time the Badgers won a title was 2008. Seniors Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma, and Michael Flowers, Big Ten Conference tournament Most Outstanding Player Marcus Landry, and Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Jason Bohannon won it outright, going 16-2 in the Big Ten. They rather easily took the conference tournament's auto-bid, and entered the NCAA Tournament on the No. 3 line.
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They smoked Cal-State Fullerton, then Michael Beasley and Kansas State -- but the next Friday night ran into Stephen Curry and the rest of the under-seeded Davidson buzz saw. The Sweet 16 seemed to be as far as they supposed to go; during the season, and having graduated Alando Tucker the year before, that team never seemed inevitable. This despite 16-2 record and the romp through Indianapolis.
Before that, Kirk Penney and Devin Harris led Wisconsin to an outright title in 2003, along with a shared title with Illinois and Indiana the season before. Although the 2002 postseason ended quite unceremoniously, the regular season home stretch was special. Bo Ryan's first run through the conference slate ended on a six-game winning streak, and with Wisconsin's first league championship since...1947! By 2003, Ryan and his respected Badgers finished out their run with an instant classic in Madison against a rising Illinois team, complete with a legit court rush. Championships in those days were not at all inevitable.
So that last one before 2002, the one in 1947? That year was the Big Ten's first without the University of Chicago competing in basketball. The Badgers were led that season by the legendary Harold "Bud" Foster, who coached Wisconsin's 1941 national championship team and was then in his 13th season at Wisconsin. He finished with 266 wins, passed only by Bo Ryan. Bo hasn't, of course, passed Bud's record 267 losses at Wisconsin -- not even close. Future All-American Don Rehfeldt was a freshman on that team. He was Wisconsin's last until Tucker.
During Bo Ryan's tenure, it's well known that his 14 teams a) have never finished below fourth in the league, and b) have never missed the NCAA tournament. This season will be no different. Still, during that time, his first, second, and seventh teams were, until now, the only ones to win a regular season title. Ryan's consistency -- inevitability even in some sense -- tends to mask how rare a conference title remains.
That same consistency also makes it easy to forget there was a time, and yes, there's some age being shown here, that a conference championship was a pipe dream. Those great combination of players of the early 1990s, with Michael Finley and Rashard Griffith, or of the late 1980s, with Danny Jones and Trent Jackson, never really came close. For those years, that was as good as it got.
On the other hand, even the most memorable teams weren't conference champs. Dick Bennett took a fifth place team (8-8 in the Big Ten) to the Final Four in 2000. Hell, even last year's Final Four team came in second place in the conference at 12-6.
The 2006-07 team may still be regarded as Ryan's best, but the story that year -- due in no small part to Butch's injury in Columbus against them -- was Ohio State's, who won the league by two games. Wisconsin held its first ever No. 1 ranking in late February, but then promptly lost twice; as good as that team was, its grip was always tenuous. Rather, the Buckeyes had the inevitable feel (remember the Big Ten tournament title game?), and it only exhausted itself in the national title game against Florida. The Badgers, of course, didn't make it past the first weekend -- needing a major comeback in the first round, then folding against a hot-shooting UNLV.
The other theme here is apparent: the postseason also makes it easy to forget the rarity of a conference championship. Besting 2007 and 2014 means getting back to the Final Four, getting to the title game -- making it right against Kentucky this time. Those are the goals, and we've known it all along. It's now March. It will be time real soon.
In what can only be called the "meantime," the Badgers can still get the Big Ten conference title outright by winning one of their last two regular season games or have Maryland lose one more time. But whatever happens, the trophy they earned on Sunday will stay. That it won't have much company in the case, especially among those that were won after World War II, makes it a flavor to savor.
Savor it, indeed -- the Big Dance will be here soon enough.