In late February 2000, the Wisconsin men's basketball team went to Iowa with a 13-12 record, 5-8 in the Big Ten. I remember wondering whether the Badgers would make the NIT. There had been some impressive victories, including 16-point wins against 10th-ranked Texas, 17th-ranked Temple, and a thrilling 63-59 triumph at home against No. 19 Illinois.
Still, the team could not put together a winning streak of more than three games. The Badgers arrived in Iowa City having lost two of their last three games, and for a time, it appeared the Hawkeyes would make it three losses in four outings. Then everything changed. Dick Bennett erupted after what he thought was a bad call by the officials. He picked up a technical foul. In fact, he might have been lucky he didn't get ejected because he appeared to make contact with one of the officials. In the huddle during a timeout, assistant coach Brad Soderberg told the players that perhaps they needed to care as much as their head coach cares. Maybe it was all a coincidence, but following Bennett's technical, the Badgers rallied to beat Iowa 54-45.
Suddenly, a season that had the makings of being just average turned into something magical. Wisconsin followed that victory with a win at Northwestern. Then, in the regular-season finale and the Badgers squarely on the NCAA bubble, Duany Duany helped spark a second-half comeback as the Badgers beat Indiana 56-53. That game marked Bob Knight's final Big Ten regular-season game as Indiana's head coach.
Right after the game, Bennett was pretty confident his team had done enough to earn an NCAA bid, but by the time the Badgers opened Big Ten Tournament play against Northwestern, the head coach was a very nervous man. I'll always remember our pregame radio interview. That feeling of confidence after the IU game was missing. He knew if the Badgers slipped up against a poor Northwestern squad, the bid to the Big Dance could very well vanish. They didn't slip up.
You can easily look up the scores of the 2000 postseason, but what I'll remember about that team was how calm it seemed to be going into its first round NCAA game against Fresno State. Keep in mind the previous year the Badgers lost their first round game to SW Missouri State in what might be the ugliest college game I have ever seen. In 1997, Wisconsin fell to Texas in the opening round. No doubt many figured the Badgers would punch out early again.
The players seemed to have little interest in a history lesson. During warm-ups before the Fresno State game, Jon Bryant came up to our courtside radio table and, while Mike Lucas and I were on the air, thought that would be a cool time to say hello and ask how we were doing. Bryant had this sly grin on his face, and he seemed totally relaxed.
I guess he was, as Bryant put on a shooting display that Jerry Tarkanian would never forget, hitting seven 3-point shots, including four in a row in the second half to lead the Badgers to victory.
Bryant's pregame courtside greeting became a habit, as the senior guard and his teammates rolled through the West Regional. It seemed everyone had a hand in the tournament run. Andy Kowske, Maurice Linton, Mark Vershaw, Mike Kelley and the rest of the Badgers made timely shots and played suffocating defense. Early in the regional semifinals against LSU, the Tigers players were shouting at each other, frustrated that they could find no answers to Wisconsin's nearly flawless play.
When the Badgers beat Purdue to advance to the Final Four, I can only describe the scene as surreal. Truth be told, I have never really cared for my radio description of the final seconds, but all I could think to blurt out was "I can't believe I'm going to say it, but here it comes--the Wisconsin Badgers are going to the Final Four." The radio call aside, I truly enjoyed watching the players, coaches and fans celebrate. I also remember my post-game chat with Soderberg, who recalled that day in Iowa City when the season turned around.
This Sunday at the Kohl Center, the UW will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Final Four team, when the Badgers shocked the basketball world with their march to Indianapolis. It was a special season for Wisconsin Athletics. Another Big Ten football and Rose Bowl title, led by Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. Then the basketball team made its magic in the NCAA tournament, led by the West Region's Most Outstanding Player, Jon Bryant.
Tournament success can be based on several factors beyond raw talent. Sometimes you have good matchups. Sometimes you have a player or two catch fire. That certainly was the case with Bryant. Such is the beauty of the NCAA tournament, and during March of 2000, enough elements fell into place to allow the Badgers to take their fans on an unforgettable ride.
One of Dick Bennett's favorite sayings is "Know who you are." That season, another of his sayings was "Touch the Dream." Good matchups and a hot player helped. So did that team's willingness to heed the coach's advice about knowing who you are. It certainly helped that team touch the dream.