When thinking about the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball program many people look at the sustained success that UW has had over the course of nearly two decades. 19 straight NCAA tournament berths and three Final Fours in that span really marked Wisconsin as one of the most stable and high performing programs in the country. However, the program was not always the well-oiled machine we see today.
There were dark days in the Wisconsin basketball program under coaches like Bill Cofield and Steve Yoder, which was followed by three mediocre seasons under Stu Jackson and Stan Van Gundy. Then Dick Bennett came along and even in his early days the Badgers looked improved, but still struggled in the post season. In Bennett’s first four years, the program missed the NCAA Tournament twice and lost in the first round the other two times.
However, in Bennett’s fifth season he would lead a scrappy, defensive minded Wisconsin team to the Final Four, which sparked an incredible run of success for Wisconsin basketball.
The 2000 Wisconsin basketball season started with a somewhat sour taste. The previous year head coach Dick Bennett lead the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament after a 22-10 season, but the Badgers fell in the first round to Missouri State scoring a putrid 32 points.
Bennett returned for his fifth season and relied on a strong group of forwards that year led by the big duo of Mark Vershaw and Andy Kowske. Wisconsin also returned some defensive minded guards in Jon Bryant and Mike Kelly. The Badgers’ bench went 10 deep that season and got some starts from key contributors like Duany Duany, Maurice Linton, Roy Boone, and New Zealander Kirk Penney.
In late December, the Badgers faced a stretch of five straight ranked opponents and fell to three of them. Following that, the Badgers dropped another contest to a middling Penn State squad, which put their record at just 9-8 on the season. Wisconsin hung around in that .500 territory until late in the season when they rattled off three straight wins to end the regular season.
In the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers faced off with 9-seeded Fresno State. The Bulldogs came out in a 2-3 zone for most of the contest, which guard Jon Bryant picked apart. Bryant led the team with 21 points in the contest, all by way of the three pointer, going 7-of-11 from beyond the arc. His hot shooting hand and the Badgers tenacious defense led Wisconsin to a 66-56 victory over the Bulldogs.
Next, the 8-seed Wisconsin took on the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats were stacked with future NBA players Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson and Luke Walton all on the team, but they were also shorthanded with big man Loren Woods out with a back injury.
Without Woods Wisconsin’s bigs were able to go to work as Kowske, Vershaw and Linton combined for 39 of the Badgers 66 points. While the bigs dominated, Wisconsin’s defensive effort was once again the focal point. The Wildcat’s leading scorer Michael Wright was held to just two points and Wisconsin controlled the entire game upsetting Arizona 66-59 and sending the Badgers on to the Sweet 16.
The Badgers traveled to Albuquerque, N.M. the following weekend to take on 4-seed LSU. The Tigers came into this game with a dominating front-court duo in Stromile Swift and Jabari Smith. Once again, Wisconsin’s defense proved to be too much for a more talented team as the Badgers held the Tigers to just 14 points in the first half.
Wisconsin doubled and trapped LSU’s bigs for most of the contest and that defensive game plan appeared to really frustrate the LSU front-court. That defensive effort continued to work into the second half and Wisconsin ground out enough points on the offensive end to come away victorious. Bryant once again led the team with 16 points, but it was a team effort on both sides of the court as Wisconsin got scoring from 11 different players in the contest and came away with a 61-48 victory sending the Badgers to the Elite 8.
In the Elite 8, the Badgers met a familiar opponent. Wisconsin and the Purdue Boilermakers had squared off three times that season already, with the Badgers taking two of three. It was clear the two sides knew each other well, and the game indicated that too. It was a back and fourth contest with each team swapping leads. The same formula that got UW there seemed to be the difference in this contest.
Defensively the Badgers played incredibly tough, and once again Bryant was the difference as he kept his hot shooting hand going knocking down five three pointers in the game. Both teams battled to the end, but Wisconsin got some stops late and held on to win 64-60.
The two wins in Albuquerque sent the Badgers to the Final Four, something Wisconsin had not done in nearly sixty years. The program had hit a high note, and now they were off to Indianapolis to take on another familiar foe in the Michigan State Spartans.
The Spartans had played the Badgers three times that season already and won all three contests. Wisconsin came into the national semifinal ready for revenge and hung with the Spartans in the first half. Once again, defense led the way and the Badgers trailed 19-17 at half but it would not be enough to keep pace with the Spartans.
In the second half, Michigan State roared out of the locker room on a 13-2 run and began to separate themselves from Wisconsin. The Badgers struggled to get baskets to fall consistently and once again Michigan State proved to be the better team. In the end, they were the best team in the country as the Spartans went on to win the NCAA Tournament.
This 2000 group put together a magical run with a group of underdog players. The Badgers knocked off teams littered with NBA talent, but had just one player from the group get a shot at the NBA in Penney years later. The rest went on to a normal life taking on roles like high school basketball coach in Jon Bryant, history teacher like Mark Vershaw, and engineer like Andy Kowske. Head coach Dick Bennett went onto Washington State a few years later, but retired after the 2006 season. His son, Tony Bennett, continues to have one of the top programs in the country at Virginia, focusing on a dominating defensive effort learned from his father.
Nobody knew at the time, but this defensive minded underdog team would give the Badgers an identity for years to come. After that year, Wisconsin made the NCAA tournament another 17 times in a row and put together two Final Four runs under Bo Ryan who later handed the reigns to Greg Gard. Currently, Gard has the program heading into the 2022 Big Ten Tournament as regular season co-champions looking for a top seed in the Big Dance.