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The Voice: 'Wisconsin Way' is working just fine

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIn an era of college basketball  "one and done" players and others who leave school early to chase their dreams of playing professionally, I bring you the Badgers' Dan Fahey (@DanFahey10), who earlier this week offered this little nugget via Twitter:

"Lot of people asking me if I'm leaving for the NBA. Just want to let everyone know I'll return for my senior year & seek my 4th career point."

In the brief history of Twitter, I nominate this as the best tweet in the history of tweets.

Then our very own Patrick Herb (@BadgerMBB) from UW Athletic Communications just had to deliver this cheap shot:

"That's good news...people definitely want to see how the career scoring race shakes out between you and @jd_wise22 (7 points)."

I think that should be a Flagrant 1, if not an ejection for Herb.

*  *  *

On Tuesday, April 24, basketball fans will have one final chance to celebrate another successful season as the Badgers have their Sweet 16 Reception at the Kohl Center. Tickets are just $25, with a cocktail buffet and a cash bar. This tends to be a fairly informal event, as Bo Ryan addresses the crowd and Patrick takes a break from tweeting to help offer a season in review.  If you are a hoops fan, it is a fun evening.

Consider it one more chance to applaud the team, especially seniors Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson for a job well done. For more details, just follow the link.

In the week following the national title game, it has been interesting hearing people talk about Kentucky's "one and done" players, and whether other teams can win in a similar fashion. Clearly in college basketball, there are different ways to be successful, be it style of play or how a program recruits.

I still like to believe there is no one set way to win. Perhaps Kentucky can keep winning with a new cast of one-year players, but that does not mean a school such as Wisconsin should try going that route. These are two different schools and two different programs, and what works for one may very well not work for the other.

Every school is different, and every school has its own mission statement. Make no mistake, the University of Wisconsin wants to win, but those within the university community are very comfortable with the type of athlete wearing a Badger uniform. Everyone wants to get the best players, but finding those who are the right fit academically and socially also remain very important.

This is in no way slamming Kentucky's method. Even if it is just for one year, as long as the players are doing the work in the classroom, what the Wildcats are doing is perfectly within the rules. If that does not happen, the program will pay a price, not unlike some other high-profile programs who fail to meet minimum academic progress requirements.

What I am saying is the "Wisconsin Way" is working just fine, too. The last player to leave early for the NBA draft was Devin Harris, yet the Badgers remain tournament regulars. The instant stars might be few and far between, but watching the development of the players is something loyal fans have embraced.

This year Kentucky had the most talent, and that group played together extremely well. Give them all the credit. But if you are a Badgers fan, do not be discouraged into thinking such a season is no more than a dream for your favorite team. This program continues to knock on the door, and as long as that happens, there is always a chance.

Now, let the scoring battle continue between Mr. Fahey and Mr. Wise.

The Voice: Time to give the regular season a boost

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgFor the record, Bo Ryan's Badgers went 3-0 against the two teams that beat Kentucky this season.

Wisconsin beat Indiana twice, and then knocked off Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament. Maybe that is small consolation, and I understand that comparing scores can be misleading, but I thought I would throw it out there.

Now you know.

In the world of college football and basketball, it is interesting how the sports have such vastly different seasons.

In football, the regular season is precious, and the critics continue to hammer away for a playoff. In basketball, for millions of the more casual sports fans, it is all about those three weeks in March and early April.

I believe it is safe to say that a good chunk of the sporting public pays close attention to college hoops only during the NCAA tournament.

Locally, that might not be the case because attendance at the Kohl Center remains strong, but there is a reason CBS pays billions of dollars in rights fees, and it probably isn't for the Sunday games it shows in January.

While the powers that be continue to discuss a possible football playoff, maybe college basketball could look at ways to boost the regular season.

One idea seems obvious -- reward the regular season conference champion with an automatic bid in the NCAA field.

Clearly, this was not a banner year for the Pac-12, but for Washington, a league crown was rendered useless after a conference tournament loss to Oregon State.

For the Huskies, it was off to the NIT. To their credit, they advanced to the semifinals before losing to Minnesota. I say "to their credit" because it might have been very easy for Washington's players to blow off that tournament.

I mean, what does a coach say to a team after it wins the regular season title, only to be told that it is still not good enough to get in the NCAA tournament?

I understand the reason for conference tournaments. Revenue, for one, and a chance for lower-profile conferences to get some national exposure.

Everyone knows the risk involved, and there have been multiple instances where those so-called mid-major teams have lost an NCAA bid because of five bad minutes in a league tourney game.

This season it just happened to burn a program in a power conference.

Yes, it was a down year for that league, but there were 12 teams with a lower RPI than Washington that made the dance.

While the RPI is only part of the formula the tournament selection committee uses, doesn't that fact seem a bit odd?

Perhaps it is unrealistic to reward automatic bids for both regular season and conference tournament champions, but it seems to me that a team proving to be the best of its league during a period of more than two months should carry a little extra weight.

I get the excitement of conference tournaments, but I believe the game would be even better if the regular season is rewarded as it should be -- all across the board.

March Madness is great, and I love every minute of it. I also happen to enjoy those other months of the college basketball season.

Fortunately here in Wisconsin, I have lots of company. A big-time regular season game generates plenty of buzz in Badger Nation, and that is good.

I just tend to believe that too many sports fans across the nation are missing out on the fun prior to March.

The Voice: Season ends quickly but leaves lasting memories

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt happens every season, but it remains a jolt. Unless a team goes the distance, the basketball season ends suddenly. A player is in the routine of practices, scouting reports, road trips and all the rest. This time of year is especially hectic. The road trips are longer. The stage is bigger. The lights are brighter.

Then it is over. No more practices. No more scouting reports. No more road trips.

Even for someone who just announces games, it is a jolt. As someone who has seen more practices than I can count, at times it can seem like Groundhog Day. Then I miss it. Imagine how a player feels.

There are years when a team's final game is ugly, when you know that group simply did not have it. Sometimes a team loses because it runs out of gas. This Wisconsin team appeared to have plenty in the tank. It just ran out of time. At least this year's Badgers know they went down swinging against talent-rich Syracuse. One could argue that last Thursday's Sweet 16 game in Boston was the best game of the tournament so far.

For that reason, I left TD Garden feeling both good and lousy for the players, coaches and support staff. Good because the Badgers did nearly everything right. Sure, they could have made a couple of more free throws, or finished another play or two near the basket. That happens with every team nearly every game. The Badgers proved to be the toughest of outs, and there is no shame in that.

I felt lousy because I thought they deserved better. Yeah, I am a touch biased. I wanted to see Jordan Taylor nail one more big shot. Then again, if his final attempt is just another quarter of an inch short, it is an airball, and Mike Bruesewitz is in position to recreate the ending of the NC State-Houston NCAA title game of 1983. If the final attempt is a hair longer, the ball caroms off the rim better, and Bruesewitz probably is still in good position for the board.

So it goes.

That is not how I choose to remember the season.

There are the obvious moments that can make Badger fans smile, such as the thrilling victory at Ohio State, Rob Wilson's 30 point outing against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament, and the NCAA tournament nail-biter with Vanderbilt.

All of that works fine, but for the last few days, I was thinking about other things. Such as the night before a road game in January. The team was on the bus, returning to the hotel after a practice. On the radio was the 1983 Lionel Ritchie hit "All Night Long," and the players were singing along.

Gotta love it when players less than half my age know a tune that was big when I was in college.

I think about the routine on the airplane before road trips. The radio crew, athletic communications director for basketball Patrick Herb and some others usually are on board before the team arrives. When the rest of the travel party boards the plane, assistant coach Gary Close always acknowledges everyone with "Gentlemen," and then he looks at me and says "Matt." OK, maybe you need to be there, but it is always good for a chuckle.

Then strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach will chime in with his usual wisecracks, leaving those within earshot laughing helplessly, and another trip officially begins.

Finally, I will think about those seemingly endless practices, and how I believe the Badgers have a chance to be pretty good again next year. George Marshall, Jarrod Uthoff and Zach Bohannon are players you have yet to see. My guess is you will like them.

Those three, plus the continued development of the other returning players and the additions of Zak Showalter and Sam Dekker, should make for quite the battle for minutes.

As for Taylor and Wilson, Bo Ryan put it best when he told the CBS crew that followed the team during the tournament, "They will be able to step away from here, once the sting of this eases up a little bit, they will realize what they have accomplished, and also how well they played for the name on the front of the jersey."

Perhaps that is the best memory of all. Their love of the game, and their love of the school they have represented so well. It was a pleasure watching them in a Wisconsin uniform.

Now, what time does practice start?

The Voice: Syracuse just latest challenge awaiting Badgers

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIn honor of National Athletic Training Month month, a tip of the cap to the medical folks, including athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra and Dr. John Orwin, for helping Josh Gasser beat a nasty stomach virus last Saturday.  

Their efforts made it possible for the sophomore guard to help his team advance to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. Henry and Doc Orwin probably hate the fact I am mentioning their names, but you should know about their work.

They sit at the end of the bench, and fans might wonder who they are. Put it this way, without them last weekend, Gasser probably had no chance of playing.

The bug struck several members of the team's traveling party, including Gasser, freshman Jared Uthoff, a few cheerleaders, at least one administrator, and even some family members, including those of head coach Bo Ryan.

As someone pointed out earlier this week, on one hand it was amazing how many people were affected.  On the other hand, it is amazing more folks, especially the players, were able to dodge the bullet.

Ryan is never one to publically make a big deal out of an injury or an illness. You either can play or you cannot. Gasser is much the same way, as he downplayed what he dealt with. Without going into great detail, it did not sound pretty. Add to it the challenge of going against a hot Vanderbilt team, featuring perhaps the prettiest 3-point shooter in college basketball, and the odds appeared to be stacked against Wisconsin.

Maybe the Badgers just like it that way. This group might not always shoot straight, but nobody with a clue will ever question their heart. Nobody with a clue will ever question their toughness.  

Of course, Ryan ended up joking about it, saying Gasser was turning green in honor of St. Patrick's Day. No word yet whether the head coach will be appearing at a Boston area Chuckle Hut.

All kidding aside, there is no question that Ryan appreciated what Gasser went through, and the coach was proud of how his teammates helped pick him up. Very simply, that is how this team rolls, and perhaps more and more observers are taking notice.

Up next is a date with the region's No. 1 seed, Syracuse. While this will be their first matchup against each other, Ryan and Orange coach Jim Boeheim have known one another for years.  
In fact, on May 5, Boeheim is scheduled to be the special guest at the fifth-annual Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin Gala that Ryan and members of his "coaching tree" host to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

In that regard, Ryan and Boeheim are very much on the same team. Thursday will be a different story. While the Badgers successfully handled adversity last week, Syracuse has had its own well-documented obstacles. The latest is the loss of freshman big man Fab Melo, the Big East's defensive player of the year. Yet the 'Cuse keeps rolling along, winners of 33 games in 35 outings.

As tip time approaches, you will hear more and more about the Orange's famed 2-3 zone, as well as the squad's lack of rebounding.  

Don't be fooled about the latter.  What they might lack on the glass they more than make up for by forcing turnovers. On average, Syracuse has a turnover margin of plus-six. This is an aggressive zone with players who have, as Ryan would say, great length and bounce.

While the Badgers shoot plenty of 3s, it will be interesting to see how they attack it. Can they get the ball inside? Will they get decent looks from midrange?

Offensively, the Badgers had terrific balance Saturday, with five players scoring in double figures.  More of the same might be necessary against Syracuse, a balanced team in its own right whose second-leading scorer, Dion Waiters, comes off the bench.

Another game, another tough battle for the Badgers. To those surprised to see Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, perhaps they view it as a team playing with house money.  

As for the players themselves, they seem to a be a group determined to extend their season as long as possible. Already they have beaten Montana, Vanderbilt and the flu. Why stop now?

The Voice: Tourney win brought out best in Badgers

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt is probably fair to say the Badgers' performance in last week's Big Ten tournament did little to help or hurt its seeding for the NCAA tournament. Perhaps there have been exceptions, but as far as Wisconsin is concerned, in most years that seems to be the case.

Still, there was plenty of exciting basketball in Indianapolis. OK, the semifinal games will not be instant classics, but Thursday, Friday and Sunday provided good theater.

For Badgers fans, Friday's quarterfinal victory against Indiana was special. In recent weeks, fans have been watching Rob Wilson get more and more playing time. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean told his players that, since the first meeting between the two teams in late January, Wilson was the Badgers' most improved player.

Yet I doubt anyone in the building figured Wilson would explode for 30 points and make "Rob Wilson" a trending topic on Twitter.

As enjoyable as it was in the moment, what stood out to me was how happy his teammates and coaches were for him. While watching the highlights, I noticed the players on the bench jumping up and down. Of course they were happy for the team, but as Bo Ryan has said, everybody likes Wilson, so  that made the day even more fun.

After the game, associate head coach Greg Gard told us on the radio broadcast, "I haven't seen that since I recruited him at Garfield Heights." A few seconds later, Gard, for the second time in as many weeks, started to get emotional when talking about his senior from Cleveland, Ohio.

"I could not be happier for him," he said before his eyes started to water. Gard needed a few seconds to gather himself. "What he's had to go through, and what he's had to work towards. Umm (another pause). Glad to see him do this at this time."  

The same can be said of Ryan, who on Friday won his 266th game as the Badgers' boss, a school record. He, too, was thrilled for Wilson. "And what is so special about it is because the way Rob has been since Day One. A great young man, a fine young man that works hard."

The head coach has said that some players need more time than others to develop. Ryan said a friend of his sent a text message offering a similar observation.

"He mentioned how he has seen that happen in some research he has done about people. He knows about people, and he realizes, too, that people have certain times where the focus is a little better, and nobody has that timetable that they can tell you ahead of time."

The text was from David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His work includes books on Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, among many others.

As for the record, "All the memories to me always go to the players and the teams and things that they did," said Ryan. "I just feel really good for all the people involved in the program."

Then the ultra-competitive head coach showed his human side, too. "There is so much that goes into it that I'm so thankful for, from my family. And the fact that my..."  Ryan needed three or four seconds to regain his composure before finishing the sentence. "My parents are still with me and had a chance to watch a lot of these games, and a lot of those teams that we've had."

I still think of Ryan's first season, when the Badgers upset seventh-ranked Illinois, 72-66. Among those who came out on the floor was Bo's father, Butch, pumping his fist as he joined the team in celebrating a memorable victory. No doubt  Butch and Louise are very proud.

This week it is all about the NCAA tournament, as the Badgers face Montana and an old friend in Grizzlies assistant coach and former UW player Freddie Owens. With Bo it is always about "next."  But as we head into what many call the greatest three weeks in sports, I just hope Badgers fans can cherish what took place last Friday in Indianapolis.

In the big picture of tournament seeding, it probably meant nothing. But sometimes sports can offer us a chance to witness something more important. Such as a player who has persevered, and a coach who just set a record, yet was thinking of everyone but himself.

Then again, maybe that is the essence of Wisconsin basketball.

The Voice: Big Ten provides challenging ballot

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIn yet another example of how competitive the Big Ten Conference has been this basketball season, Senior Day/Night was unkind to most. In the home finales, the home teams won four and lost eight. Among those losing their final home games were the three teams that ended up sharing the conference championship.

Hats off to the Badgers for being one of the four squads to hold serve, something they have done every year under head coach Bo Ryan. On Sunday, the 11th-year head coach also tied Hall of Famer Bud Foster with win No. 265 at Wisconsin. It was fun to witness the long and well-deserved ovation the fans at the Kohl Center gave him. It was obvious Ryan was touched by the response.

Speaking of well deserved, congratulations to Badgers guard Jordan Taylor for being named first-team All-Big Ten by the league's coaches. Honorable mention recognition goes to Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans, while Josh Gasser earned a spot on the All-Defensive Team. Also, senior Rob Wilson, who continues to play well, is Wisconsin's honoree for the Sportsmanship Award.

For better or for worse, I have been among the media voters for several years. It is rarely easy, and this year was one of the more difficult. I can't tell you how many times I moved a player from first team to second, then back again.

The easy calls were Draymond Green and Jared Sullinger, with Green my pick for player of the year. Then the decisions started to get a little more difficult. For the remaining three spots, you probably could make compelling arguments for seven or eight players. I chose to go with three players who have as much on their plate as anyone in the Big Ten -- Tim Frazier of Penn State, John Shurna of Northwestern and Taylor.

Shurna led the Big Ten in scoring, and while he certainly gets support from teammates such as Drew Crawford, Shurna is the one who generally seems to get the bulk of the attention from opposing teams.

Frazier plays for the last-place and worst-shooting team in the conference. Yet he finished second in scoring and led the league in assists. I repeat, he led the Big Ten in assists playing for the worst-shooting team in the conference. In addition, Frazier's ability to penetrate and hit that little tear drop over players nearly a foot taller is something to see.

Finally, I went with Taylor for how he has handled being the player wearing the bullseye all season.

Without Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, Taylor is the man opponents target from tipoff to final buzzer.  Coming off ball screens, he gets doubled. He gets bumped. He gets knocked to the floor. He then gets up and comes after you again.

Taylor probably could have taken 20 shots a game, and therefore would have averaged more than the 16.3 points per game he put up in Big Ten play. Instead, he elected to make every effort to get his teammates involved. Yet when needed, Taylor would put the team on his shoulders. And in crunch time, far more often than not, he delivered.

If I am putting together a Big Ten All-Star team, Jordan Taylor is going to be on it. Period. Case closed. End of story.

Having made my case, I have to admit it was extremely difficult, and to a point I felt foolish putting Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Michigan's Trey Burke on the second team. Hummel made the first team with both the coaches and the media, and how can you not feel good about his comeback from two major knee injuries? Talk about a player with a lot on his plate.

Burke has been tremendous for the Wolverines, and it is scary to think he is just a freshman. The same can be said of Indiana big man Cody Zeller.

My point here is the Big Ten is full of very good players and very good teams. Coaches, including Bo Ryan, have said this is the deepest the conference has been in a long time. Maybe the deepest it has ever been.

It has made for an enjoyable regular season. It figures to make for a hotly contested and highly entertaining Big Ten tournament. You might want to tune in. There is going to be one heck of a collection of college basketball teams gathering in Indianapolis this week.

The Voice: Tough-minded Badgers will be tough out in tourney

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWelcome to the Madness.

As the Big Ten season hits the final few days and more than a dozen other conference tournaments get going, let us just go ahead and welcome all those sports fans whose interest in college basketball picks up -- right about this time of year.

More than one week away from Selection Sunday, and already I have heard what has turned into an annual question. How far will the Badgers advance in the NCAA tournament?

Who knows? Can we at least wait for the tournament pairings?

Boring as it might sound, that is the best answer I can give. However, there are some signs that the Badgers once again could be a tough out in postseason play.

The effort last Sunday at Ohio State certainly gives fans reason to believe. After coming close against highly-ranked teams such as North Carolina, Marquette, Michigan State and the first matchup with the Buckeyes, Wisconsin broke through with a 63-60 victory in Columbus.

In sports, there are some games that you steal. This was not one of them. The Badgers won it. They won it with a big-league effort from Jared Berggren, Jordan Taylor and company. With Taylor, it is the latest chapter in a terrific career, but to see Berggren have success at both ends of the floor against OSU big man Jared Sullinger is encouraging. Yes, it is simply one game, but what a game it was.

How about the recent play of Rob Wilson? The senior can hear the clock ticking on his college basketball career, and he is playing as though he would like it to last several more weeks.

To make a long story short, it appears as though a certain All-America point guard is getting more and more help from players not named Jordan Taylor. In two of the previous three games prior to Tuesday night's 52-45 victory against Minnesota, Wisconsin had four players scoring in double figures. Against Ohio State there were three, with Wilson adding nine critical points off the bench.

It is no secret that opposing teams have tried to do everything possible to contain Taylor. Still, there are times when Taylor proves to be next to impossible to stop. Just ask the Gophers. However, on other nights, Taylor needs the other four on the floor to pick him up.  As the regular season comes to a close, the Badgers are showing they are capable of providing some balance.

"They're gonna have to," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "That is how you can get to keep playing. They are trying to be a more consistent unit, no matter who the five are on the court."

Against the Gophers, it was more a matter of Jordan needing to be Jordan. The senior guard knocked down 3 of 6 shots from 3-point range and then added 11 of 12 from the free throw line. Come tournament time, he may very well need to have a monster game --maybe more than one -- for Wisconsin to advance.

But perhaps the better chance for the Badgers would be if they are able to distribute the scoring.

On Tuesday, the Badgers finished a rather grueling stretch of playing three games in six days in three different cities. They won two of those, which assures the Badgers of a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament for the 12th-straight year.

And they are in line for a 14th-consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

Some of the Badgers' games have been anything but pretty, but this streak of postseason appearances is a thing of beauty.

The Voice: Whatever the recipe, Badgers keep winning

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWhile it is unlikely anyone associated with the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team will say it out loud, the Badgers appear to be in pretty decent shape for a 14th-consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

Only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State have longer streaks. Meanwhile Texas, which like the Badgers has gone dancing for the last 13 years, would seem to have some work to do.

To be sure, the Longhorns could still make it, but they begin the week with a 7-8 conference record, and a ratings percentage index (RPI) of 59, according to CollegeRPI.com.

A couple of other traditional powers will need to win their conference tournaments to make the field. Pittsburgh is last in the Big East with a 4-11 record, while its RPI is 93. UCLA is 8-6 in the Pac-12, but has an RPI of 136.

In other words, dropping games to the Panthers and the Bruins, especially the latter, would be considered a bad loss. Imagine that.

The RPI is just one of several tools for the NCAA tournament selection committee, but clearly those numbers help demonstrate that Texas, Pitt and UCLA have had their struggles.

Meanwhile, the Badgers simply continue to win. On Sunday, Bo Ryan's bunch won its 20th game of year. That is six straight seasons of at least 20 victories, and the ninth in 11 years under Ryan. In the history of the program, the UW has 13 such seasons.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that the Badgers can still finish in the top four of the Big Ten standings.

They would like to believe they can end up even higher, but for now, Wisconsin is a game-and-a-half ahead of fifth-place Indiana. If the Badgers hold on to that position, it would be the 11th-straight season of a fourth-place or better finish in the league.

Now that is impressive.  

Perhaps even more so this season. Yes, this team really struggles to score, but far more often than not, they defend. They protect the basketball. And they make free throws, especially late in games.

To this point of the season, that combination has helped the Badgers to the Big Ten's best road record.

With trips coming up to Iowa City and Columbus, that combo needs to be in play again.

Much has been made of Wisconsin's home record under Ryan, and much has been made of the Badgers' four Kohl Center losses this season. Understandable, but what many folks have missed is the success away from home.

Since Ryan became the head coach in Madison, no team in the Big Ten has been better outside of its own gym than the Badgers.

During that period, Wisconsin's 47 conference road wins is tied with Ohio State for the most in the league. Michigan State is next in line with 43.

The Badgers are not picky. They win here. They win there (stolen from Charlie Sheen).

Without a doubt, the Badgers would love to average more than the 60 points per game they manage in league play. But, if they score 52 and the opponent has 51, they will take it.

Especially at this stage of the season, when absolutely nothing is easy.

Against Penn State, the shots started to fall more frequently. Hopefully that is a sign of things to come.

However, if the offense starts scuffling again, the Badgers still can have a fighting chance, as long as the defense remains solid, they secure the basketball and they knock down pressure free throws.

That might end up being Wisconsin's winning recipe.

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.

The Voice: A college football playoff? Count me in

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgSome random thoughts from someone who is thrilled that Travis Beckum will get a Super Bowl ring, but is disappointed for him that the price to pay includes a torn ACL:

We're talking about playoffs
Is college football one step closer to a four-team playoff?  Earlier this week the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reported Big Ten officials are tossing around the thoughts of taking the top four teams in the final BCS poll and having them meet in semifinal games, with the higher-ranked squads earning home field advantage.  

The winners would meet for the national championship at a site determined through a bid process.

Last month, BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said schools are looking at 50 to 60 different postseason plans, but this latest nugget sounds plenty intriguing to me.  

The current BCS postseason agreement runs through the 2014 season, but perhaps the Big Ten, which as a conference has been anti-playoff, is ready to change its tune. To some, it might not include enough teams, but count me in as being in favor of this step.

I like the possibility of an SEC team travelling north to play a big game. Now, let us just wait and see whether it happens.  

Leuer making an impact
I don't know about you, but I find myself trying to watch a little more of the Milwaukee Bucks this season. The reason is Jon Leuer. Yes, the Bucks have been wildly inconsistent.  

It also is true that here in Madison, interest in the NBA, and specifically the Bucks, appears to be choppy at best.

But it is fun for me to watch a former Badger standout who has put together some pretty good games in his rookie season.

While doing a little channel surfing last Saturday night, I caught some of their game with the Bulls.  It was a long night for the Bucks, but I appreciated hearing Bulls color analyst and former player Stacey King praise Leuer, calling him a very good addition to the team.

Maturi will be missed
Sticking with hoops, on Thursday night the Badgers will play the Gophers at Williams Arena, AKA, "The Barn." It will be good to see Joel Maturi, who this summer will retire as the University of Minnesota's athletics director.

Maturi has been the target of some harsh criticism in the Twin Cities, but it is clear he walked into a difficult environment. Perhaps the crown jewel of Maturi's 10 years as Minnesota's AD is TCF Bank Stadium, the football home for the Gophers.

Above all else, Joel Maturi simply is one of the good guys in college athletics. In the late 1990s, when he was the AD at the University of Denver, Maturi wanted to hire someone named Bo Ryan. Apparently, university officials had other ideas, so the move never happened.

Interesting how things work out sometimes, right?

Eddie earned his return
Finally, welcome back Eddie Faulkner. Football coach Bret Bielema hired the former Badgers tailback to be the team's tight ends coach.

In his playing days, Faulkner would step in for Ron Dayne and Michael Bennett, and the team recognized his value.

For me, the first memory that jumps out is Faulkner's game-winning touchdown in overtime to beat Cincinnati in 2000.

It was a clutch performance by a player who understood and accepted his role.

It is good to see Eddie Faulkner establish himself as a respected coach. It is even better that he gets to return to his alma mater.