The Voice: Unlikely champs set stage for Ryan era

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgThis Sunday, the University of Wisconsin will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the basketball team's first Big Ten title in 55 years.  Let me confess to you how smart I was about that group. Before the season began, I wondered whether it could win 10 games.

There was a new coaching staff. A couple of players left the program. Promising freshman Latrell Fleming had to give up the sport because of a heart condition. Another freshman, Andreas Helmigk, blew out his knee in training camp. People wondered whether a shooter such as Kirk Penney could have success in Bo Ryan's system.

There was reason to be excited about a freshman named Devin Harris, but how good would he be in his rookie season?

The seniors on that team were Charlie Wills and Trevon Davis. The previous season, Wills averaged 4.2 points per game, and Davis chipped in with 2.2. There were some who labeled Davis as a hard-nosed but turnover prone player. How would the point guard handle Ryan, and vice versa?

Early in the season, the critics seemed fairly smart. The travel schedule was brutal, with a road trip to Las Vegas, followed by a flight to Hilo, Hawaii. The team returned to Madison for a day, and then it was off to Atlanta for a date with Georgia Tech.

At the end of that stretch, the Badgers were 1-4. They dropped six of their first nine games, but as the non-conference season moved along, the players started to understand what Bo and his staff expected.

They blitzed a Dwayne Wade-led Marquette team, 86-63, slipped past UW-Milwaukee and held off a solid Tennessee squad, 65-62.

In a crazy Big Ten season, no team really took hold of the league. By early February, the Badgers got hot, beginning with an overtime decision against 16th-ranked Ohio State. It started a six-game winning streak to close the regular season.

Two years before, Badger fans witnessed the incredible run to the Final Four. Keep in mind they finished sixth in the Big Ten.

After that season, perhaps many observers figured Wisconsin basketball would return to the background. Obviously, the Badgers have done the opposite.

On Feb. 27, 2002, the Badgers had a celebration. They pounded Michigan 74-54, giving the fans a chance to rush the floor, and giving Bo and his players a chance to cut down the nets.

The 2001-02 team was low on healthy bodies, but it was a team with impressive scoring balance, led by Penney's 15 points per game. Harris and Wills also averaged in double figures. Mike Wilkinson was right behind them.

Freddie Owens hit a game-winner at Michigan State that snapped the Spartans' home winning streak at 53 games.

Davis was more than solid at point guard, averaging 7.8 points a game and 4.3 rebounds. Dave Mader also started every game, giving his team valuable minutes with his size.

It will be good to see those who can make it to Madison this weekend. Wisconsin basketball has come a long way in a fairly short time.

Yes,  it was 55 years between Big Ten titles, but once the Badgers won that trophy in Bo's first year, opponents have found them very difficult to beat.

The Badgers of 10 years ago sent a little notice to the college basketball world that they planned to be a factor for awhile, and that certainly has been the case.

The 2001-02 season was amazing to witness, and I was very pleased that my preseason inkling was so off target.

You want to know the best part about the Badgers having a 10-year championship reunion?

They get to have another one next year.
ON WISCONSIN