Of all the improbable achievements in Wisconsin athletics history, the 2001-02 Badger men's basketball team has to rank among the most remarkable.
With a roster featuring just one returning starter and only eight scholarship players, first-year head coach Bo Ryan watched his squad struggle to a 1-4 start. Incredibly, Ryan's team would spend the next four months battling back to earn a share of the school's first Big Ten championship in 55 years.
At halftime of Sunday's 65-55 win over Penn State, the University of the Wisconsin honored the 10-year anniversary of that 2002 Big Ten Championship team.
As seen in the video above, members of the team and staff were introduced Sunday to a standing ovation from a capacity Kohl Center crowd.
The 2001-02 Badgers won their final six conference games to finish the season with a 19-13 record, including an 11-5 mark in Big Ten play. Wisconsin earned a share of the Big Ten Conference title for the first time since 1947 and earned the league's No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. UW would advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament that year before falling to eventual national champion Maryland.
Ryan became the first-ever Badger coach to earn Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after leading UW to 19 wins, most ever for a first-year coach. He also became just the 10th coach in conference history to win a league title in his first season. RELATED CONTENT
Bloody but unbowed has been a cliche but apt metaphor for the Wisconsin-Michigan State series. Whenever these rivals meet, it seems, there's figuratively some blood spilt.
That doesn't include the occasional bad blood that has existed over the past decade.
After Thursday's slugfest, UW junior Jared Berggren was sporting five stitches under his chin. At one point, Berggren's blood had to be literally wiped off the court after the wound reopened.
There may be no better classroom in the Big Ten than the Breslin Center. After the 69-55 loss in East Lansing, Mich., Berggren conceded, "There's a lot to learn from."
Frank Kaminsky was in lockstep with Berggren's thinking.
"A game like this really teaches you what you need to improve on," said Kaminsky, the 6-foot-11, 230-pound freshman center from Lisle, Ill. "I'm going to take a lot away from this."
This was just another chapter in Kaminsky's orientation to the Big Ten. On this night, the teaching assistants were 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6-10, 240-pound Adreian Payne.
"I learned how to fight back," Kaminsky said. "If they're pushing, you've got to push right back. You can't let down at any point in the game or they will take advantage of you.
"Everyone is big, everyone is strong. You have to neutralize their strength somehow. You've got to be smarter about the plays that you can go out there and make. That's what I'm learning right now."
There was one sequence where Nix was able to school Kaminsky on the low post. "They exploited me a little bit on defense," Kaminsky admitted. "I have to work harder."
Despite a baptism under fire to the raucous Izzone environment - not to mention dealing with MSU's imposing frontline, which also includes Draymond Green - Kaminsky did some good things.
While playing a Big Ten-high 12 minutes, Kaminsky grabbed a career-high six rebounds.
Speaking to the rebounding total which was split evenly (three each) between the offensive and defensive glass, UW associate head coach Greg Gard said, "I thought he was active that way."
Moreover, he noticed, "I don't think Frank was out of his element in any way."
On one possession, Gard said Kaminsky turned down a shot in transition that he needed to take. He also took a shot at the end of the clock when he could have kicked and gotten a better one.
His decision-making will improve with more experience, Gard implied.
But it's the physical part of the game that needs to be addressed during the off-season.
"Physically, he's adequate, but he's not where he needs to be," Gard said. "He needs another year of conditioning and weight lifting. He needs to change and reconfigure his body a little."
That's all part of getting a Big Ten education, particularly for a first-year player.
Nobody exposes you quicker than Michigan State, either.
"Enjoying and embracing the physical nature of the game is one thing that freshmen don't quite understand until they go through it a time or two," Gard said.
"Thursday's game will be a good reference point for Frank because now he has some understanding on why he needs to get stronger and the benefits that he can derive from it.
"We're so adamant about imposing your will and not backing down. That goes along with the fact we're always talking about playing physical without fouling; all the things that really good teams do.
"Maybe this knowledge will help him push through another set of squats in the weight room. Or maybe it will drive him to go a little harder when he's running the hill, whatever it may be."
Nix's steady development can be a case study for others in the conference. Since he weighed 340 pounds in high school, he has been reshaping his body. He's now down to 270.
Nix averaged only eight minutes of playing time his first two seasons with the Spartans. He's now up to 19, and he has become an integral contributor to the team's success around the rim.
What are the chances that the UW's Evan Anderson could play that role in the future? The 6-10, 260-pound Anderson, a redshirt freshman Eau Claire North, definitely has appealing size and strength.
"I think he's almost at the point where he can play right now and help," Gard said. "I really liked what I've seen. Not everything is perfect but he has a competitive fire about him.
"Evan has a little bit of a nasty edge. He just has to learn to polish up that nastiness to where he's not fouling all the time. But I don't see any reason why he can't come along the same path as Nix.
"He's a huge body and he loves to play physical. We need more of that."
During Wednesday night's practice at the Breslin Center, UW coach Bo Ryan was not satisfied with the work of his "bigs" so he pulled Anderson off the scout team and had him run with the starters.
"Some experience will do wonders for him," Gard said. "When he has been with me on the scout team, you can park him on the block and do some of the things Michigan State does (with Nix).
"There's no reason why he can't play for us down the road, if not sooner. He's never going to be light of foot or a leaper. But I see bigs across the country that aren't that way but they're effective.
"Hopefully we can get to the point with Evan where we can get him into the game for short spurts. It doesn't have to be eight minutes at a time - but a minute here and two minutes there."
That would apply, Gard suggested, "Whether he sinks or swims."
Which, he added, is the only way you learn how to swim.
Just ask Kaminsky who got his feet wet Thursday night in the shark tank.
As the regular season winds down, the annual postseason award debates will ramp up all over college basketball. The Big Ten Player of the Year race is coming into focus, but the final six games could go a long way in deciding the winner.
As a preseason All-America and All-Big Ten selection, senior Jordan Taylor's name has been on the conference player of the year short list since November.
However, after seeing a dip in his scoring from last season, Taylor's name probably isn't at the top of anyone's list. But is it close?
Looking at the current player of the year lists from three writers who cover the Big Ten -- Sporting News' Mike DeCourcey, ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf and BTN.com's Tom Dienhart -- each have Taylor third in the running behind Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Michigan State's Draymond Green.
That sounds fair considering the raw numbers during conference play: • Sullinger (18.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg) • Green (14.6 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.5 apg) • Taylor (17.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.3 apg)
Perhaps the overall conference race will play as big of a factor as any in the player of the year voting.
If Wisconsin (which sits 1.0 game out of first place behind the Buckeyes and Spartans) can finish as Big Ten champions, it would be pretty hard to argue that any player is more valuable to his team's success than Taylor.
Taylor and the Badgers have two head-to-head opportunities with MSU and OSU to prove their worth. That starts Thursday in East Lansing.
Some 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.
By Mike Lucas on February 4, 2012 8:08 AM
Traevon Jackson agreed to page through his photo album; committed to memory or otherwise.
In one snapshot, he's pictured with his fourth- and fifth-grade teammates: Trey Burke, now a freshman point guard at Michigan, and Jared Sullinger, now a sophomore All-American at Ohio State. (That's Jackson at far left in the front row and Sullinger at far right in the back row).
"We were all on the same team along with Adam Griffin (one of Archie's kid),'' said Jackson, a UW freshman. "He (Sullinger) used to eat at McDonald's every day and come out and shoot 3s.
"He was in fifth grade and only about 5-9; but he was big and chubby. Now, he's in great shape (6-9, 280). He's obviously improved his body a lot. He's a great player. He was still good then.''
There's a second snapshot of Jackson; a more recent one from last February.
Picture him in Wisconsin colors working the cash register and bagging groceries. During his senior year at Westerville (Ohio) South High School, he held a part-time job at a grocery store.
On this particular day -- Feb 12, 2011 -- the store employees were encouraged to honor their favorite college team. Since Jackson was committed to being a Badger, he represented accordingly.
Everybody else was in Ohio State colors.
"Everybody else in the store was sad,'' Jackson said, "except me.''
That was the day that the Badgers beat the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes at the Kohl Center. Jackson listened to the game on the radio and then raced home after work and watched the TV highlights.
"That was big,'' he said with a big grin.
Jackson will have a front row seat -- on the UW bench -- for Saturday's matchup against No. 3 Ohio State. Although his playing time has been limited, he will continue to prepare like he's a starter.
"That's the toughest thing going into games knowing that you may not step on the court,'' Jackson said, "but knowing in the back of your head that you've got to be ready.''
Jackson last played on Jan. 18 against Northwestern.
Overall, he's seen action in only 12 of 23 games.
"I honestly thought I'd be playing a little more,'' said Jackson. "But that's not the case. We've got guys ahead of me: Rob (Wilson) who's a senior and Ben (Brust) who has put in his time as well.
"You've got to respect that and just be ready whenever your time comes.''
A year ago, Brust went through the same freshman transition that Jackson is going through now. Brust played in just 15 of 34 games. He got fewer minutes (45) than Jackson already has seen (89).
This season, Brust has become a key contributor in the "sixth man'' role.
"He has obviously been a huge part of our success,'' Jackson said. "He stretches the defense. We need that. He's a guy who can come off the bench and create and knock down shots.
"Ben put in his work and his time came to perform (this year).
"That's what I've got to do (perform) when my time comes.''
During Thursday's practice, Jackson was wearing a white jersey -- which is worn by the starters and the top reserves. Wilson had a class and, in his absence, Jackson took his place in the rotation.
At one point, UW coach Bo Ryan teased Jackson about socializing with the scout team.
"Tomorrow, I will be back to the scout team,'' Jackson said afterward. "But it was nice today to see where you want to be in the future. You can show off your skill set while you're with the first team.''
Gearing up physically and mentally for every practice has been a part of Jackson's adjustment.
"It's a grind and you definitely have to be committed to it 100 percent,'' he said. "You have to have your focus every day. That's the biggest thing -- being consistent and giving that effort every day.''
Realistically, he conceded, it's just human nature to slough off sometimes. "But you have to push through things that you're not used to doing,'' he said.
That's part of the maturing process, Jackson added.
"The biggest key is mental toughness,'' he said. "To me, it means fighting through adversity when things aren't going right. You have to find a way to make it right -- regardless.
"If you're not hitting shots some days, you have to find other ways to get involved in the game. You have to find ways to stay active and not get down on yourself.
"You might not be playing some games. But you still have to find that desire and toughness to come back every day and get better by staying in the gym.''
Jackson feels like his game has definitely gotten better this season.
"I'm working daily on my ball-handling, working on my shooting, working on things that I feel I can bring to the team,'' he said. "As long as I'm doing these things when my time comes I'll be fine.''
The older, more experienced players have been supportive while reminding Jackson that "It's just a process -- some of them went through it -- and they just tell you to keep working'' in practice.
"That all goes back to being ready,'' Jackson said. "God forbid, if Rob or Ben got hurt, I'd have to be ready. Or, if they get in foul trouble, I'd have to be ready. That's the way I've prepared.''
Nobody is better prepared to simulate Ohio State on the scout team than Jackson, who has played with or against Sullinger, Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon and LaQuinton Ross.
On the AAU circuit, he's also crossed paths with Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and Sam Thompson.
"I pretty much know all of their games,'' Jackson said.
By his own admission, he will likely get more emotional in late February when Wisconsin and Ohio State play in Columbus because there will be a lot of family and friends in attendance.
Picture this: Traevon Jackson playing in the same arena where his dad's jersey is one of the retired numbers hanging from the rafters. Jim Jackson was a two-time All-American at Ohio State.
For now, though, his only focus is Saturday's game against the Buckeyes at the Kohl Center.
"I'm a Badger,'' he said. "We've got to beat them regardless of where my hometown is.''
In the last couple of weeks, the Badger men's basketball team has given fans a few more examples of how times continue to change, and for the better.
Last Sunday, Bo Ryan's team beat Illinois in Champaign. Ten days earlier the Badgers held off Purdue in West Lafayette. It marked the first time since 1918 that a Wisconsin team won in those two cities in the same season. For any team, winning at Purdue and at Illinois is difficult. The Badgers' miseries, especially in West Lafayette, are well documented.
Consider this year's success as another in a line of negative streak-busters accomplished by Ryan's Badgers.
Last Thursday, the Badgers defeated Indiana 57-50. It is the ninth-consecutive victory, and the 15th in the last 18 meetings for Wisconsin against Indiana. In addition, it is the 11th-straight home court win for the Badgers against IU.
You do not need to be in the "over 40" crowd to remember when the Badgers were on the other end of such a streak. From 1980 until 1997, Bob Knight's Indiana teams ran off 31 straight victories at Wisconsin's expense. Included in the domination was a 22-game home court winning streak against the Badgers -- until Ryan's first Wisconsin team ended the madness in February of 2002.
Knowing about that long, rough stretch of years might make it easier to appreciate what this current group of Badgers is doing against a storied basketball program.
Which brings us to another current streak that Wisconsin would love to extend. On Saturday, third-ranked Ohio State comes to town. No doubt there will be plenty of excitement. Perhaps not quite as much as last year, when an unbeaten and top-rated Buckeyes team visited the Kohl Center, but I would like to believe there will be no shortage of noise in the building.
Without a doubt Coach Thad Matta has put together one of nation's premier programs. OSU has had excellent role players as well as major star power. That trend continues this season.
The Kohl Center also happens to be the one building where Matta's Buckeyes have yet to win. They are 0-6 under the current boss, and OSU has dropped nine straight overall in Madison.
Perhaps to some, winning can be taken for granted. These streaks should not be viewed in such a manner. Like the bad streaks, the good ones will end sometime. The Badgers and their fans just hope this good stretch won't stop anytime soon.
Extending it another game will be a tall order. Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft make for a tremendous trio. There are those who believe Craft is the nation's best on-ball defender, which should make for another big time matchup with Jordan Taylor. When we last saw Taylor at home against Ohio State, the All-America guard was putting on a show for the ages, leading Wisconsin from a 15-point second-half deficit to give OSU its first loss of the season.
After starting Big Ten play 1-3, it might have been tempting to give up on this team. Instead, the Badgers have fought their way back into the conference race with six straight wins.
Sometimes they shoot it well. Other times they seem to get it done by sheer will.
Whatever the formula, they have found the right mix to turn negatives into positives. On Saturday, the home team would like nothing more than to keep streaking against a national power.
Bruesewitz on 'The Journey' Photo GalleryThe standard practice of "icing" the free throw shooter takes on a whole different context with Mike Bruesewitz, who may be the only player in college basketball with ice skates in his locker.
So it evolved on Thursday night with Bruesewitz converting free throws around a timeout in the final 15 seconds to help No. 25 Wisconsin "ice" a 57-50 victory over 16th-ranked Indiana at the Kohl Center.
As a team, the Badgers went 12-of-12 from the line in the second half after knocking down only 3-of-7 free throws in the first half thereby extending a curious trend.
---------------------------------------------------------------- Watch Bruesewitz on "The Journey 2012" Sunday, Jan. 29 - BTN - 7 p.m. CT ----------------------------------------------------------------
There was also a tale of two halves from the free throw line in UW's win at Illinois last Sunday: 2-of-8 in the first and 8-of-10 in the second; all of which suggests the obvious "ice water in the veins" cliche.
Bruesewitz would qualify as one of those players by birth. After all, he was born in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 outdoor hockey rinks, i.e. lakes i.e. the skates in his Kohl Center locker.
Big Ten Network was intrigued enough to film a segment on Bruesewitz for its "The Journey 2012" series, which has been chronicling many of the more unique basketball storylines in the league.
In the episode scheduled to air Sunday night at 7 p.m. (CT), Bruesewitz will be featured on the ice with a couple of UW hockey players in All-American defenseman Justin Schultz and forward Derek Lee.
Bruesewitz, Schultz and Lee have been friends since their freshman year together in the dorms.
"They were great sports to do it," Bruesewitz said.
The filming took place at Vilas Park. At one point, Lee manned the camera at ice level while Schultz and Bruesewitz skated to the net, passing the puck back and forth between them.
"I hadn't skated outdoors in a long time," Bruesewitz said.
The last time he played competitive hockey was in the seventh grade.
"My dangling (juking) skills are sub-par now," he said. "But I used to dangle back in the day."
Bruesewitz was a center iceman in youth hockey.
"When the Kohl Center ice is down, I'll probably skate six or seven times a year," he said. "It's a little different activity for me and it gets me away from everything."
"My claim to fame is that I scored on a couple of college-age goalies."
Laughing, he added, "But I won't mention any names."
However, he did drop Jordan Taylor's name in the conversation since Taylor also hails from Minnesota. The natural assumption, of course, is that everyone who grew up in the state can skate.
"Jordan tries," Bruesewitz said of UW's All-American point guard. "But he's like Louis Mendoza from (the movie) 'The Mighty Ducks.' He can skate pretty fast, but he can't stop."
Over the last 13 minutes and 24 seconds of Thursday's game, Taylor's offense was "on ice" but, despite not scoring, he did all the other critical little things to ensure success against the Hoosiers.
More telling in the long run may have been the fact that his teammates picked him up. Ben Brust and Ryan Evans each scored 10 points in the second half. Evans also finished with nine rebounds.
"We didn't have a great shooting night as a team but finding other ways to win is real encouraging," said Evans, who was only 2-of-8 from the field but 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
"My rebounding got me to the line."
Evans acknowledged that he has struggled in the first half in each of the last two home games.
"But I'm fortunate that Coach (Bo Ryan) is not giving up on me," he said. "It's very important knowing that I'm going to get a chance in the second half to turn things around, which I felt I did."
Throughout the season, Indiana's Christian Watford has hit clutch shots, including the game-winner over No. 1 ranked Kentucky. But Evans limited Watford to just six points in the second half.
"I consider myself a defensive player," Evans said, "and I kind of learn about a player throughout the game. I knew that he (Watford) was going to be aggressive at the end, so I wanted to contain him.
"I knew that he was strong to the right hand so I wanted to force him left a little bit more."
The scouting report also factored into Bruesewitz's defense on Cody Zeller. "He's one of the best freshman not only in the Big Ten but the country; one of the best big men regardless of class," he said.
For long stretches -- however long he was on the floor due to foul trouble -- Wisconsin center Jared Berggren did a terrific defensive job on Zeller and ended up with a career- high five blocked shots.
But it was the 6-foot-6 Bruesewitz who checked the 6-11 Zeller down the stretch.
"I just wanted to make sure he had to work as hard as possible to get the ball," Bruesewitz said. "That's always been my M.O., especially in post-defense being a little undersized.
"Sometimes it helps that I can duck under those bigger guys and get in front of them and work a little harder than them. My whole thought process was to make him work.
"I wanted to make him do something he wasn't comfortable doing. We had watched a lot of film on Zeller. Watching him go against Jared, he did a lot of countering, especially on the baseline."
One of the key possessions of the game revolved around Bruesewitz' post defense on Zeller. With the Badgers protecting a 53-50 lead, Zeller missed a short jump hook and Taylor rebounded.
"I thought he might go baseline," Bruesewitz said. "I told everybody afterward if he would have continued to the middle, he probably would have had a dunk or a layup. But he countered."
Thanks to that aforementioned scouting report -- "Our coaches do a great job letting us know all that stuff" -- Bruesewitz was ready for Zeller's counter move. Standing tall, he forced a difficult shot.
At the opposite end, Bruesewitz then pulled down an offensive rebound. Although he was all alone under the basket -- Zeller had fallen down -- he took the ball back outside and got fouled.
"I'm not quite sure how he ended up on his butt," said Bruesewitz, clearing his throat. Wink, wink. "But Watford was behind me and there was a lot of traffic. I didn't know where everybody was.
"My whole through process there was to get it out and try to run some clock. I almost turned the ball over. But luckily I got it back as soon as I lost it and I got to the free throw line."
That would not be a cause for celebration this season, since Bruesewitz was shooting 53 percent from the line in Big Ten games. But he claimed that was an aberration, not a sign of things to come.
Validating that thinking, he went 4-of-4 against the Hoosiers.
"The free throw line is all about mental toughness and confidence," said Bruesewitz. "It's just repetition. I know that I'm a good free throw shooter. It just hasn't shown."
To get back on track, he has been staying after practice to shoot 50 to 100 free throws. Before Thursday morning's shoot-around, he also got on the floor early to work on his stroke and rhythm.
In the second half, Bruesewitz and his teammates drew nothing but net, and cheers.
"Personally I feed off the crowd," Evans said. "That was huge for me and the team."
"The crowd was amped and got here early," Bruesewitz said. "I don't think a lot of people around here like Indiana too much.
"I know it was really fun to have a rocking Kohl Center."
During the 1989 and 1990 Badger football seasons, I had the privilege of working with legendary announcer Jim Irwin. In those days, Jim did the play-by-play alongside Elroy Hirsch and Brian Manthey. My role was hosting the pregame, halftime and postgame shows.
I certainly knew about Jim. In those days, every sports fan in Wisconsin was familiar with the name. Among his many duties, Jim was the voice of the Badgers, the Milwaukee Bucks and, most notably, the Green Bay Packers. When needed, Jim also would fill in for Bob Uecker on the Brewers' broadcasts.
He did it all. On Friday, Jim would call a Bucks game. On Saturday, he would be in the booth for a Badgers game, and then he would either head up to Lambeau Field or race to catch a plane to wherever the Packers were playing on Sunday.
It was quite the schedule, but Jim was the consummate professional. There is a reason he is a Hall of Famer.
Like so many sports fans in this state and beyond, I am saddened at the news of his passing. Irwin died earlier this week in Southern California at age 77.
For many years, Jim Irwin was the voice of teams that had very little success. When we worked together for those two years on the UW football broadcasts, the Badgers' record was 3-19. On the field, those seasons were anything but pretty, but Jim always had plenty of energy, and he was the eternal optimist.
As for your truly, I was a twenty-something kid from Ohio still trying to figure out the business. The next think I knew, I was sitting next to a Wisconsin broadcasting icon.
While those were trying times for the Badgers and their fans, the 1989 and 1990 Wisconsin football seasons are years that I cherish. Why? Because Jim could not have been more welcoming to someone who was still fairly new to the industry.
Someone like Jim could have "big timed" me, but he always offered words of encouragement. In a sense, perhaps he was taking me under his wing. It was only 22 Saturdays, but for me they were important Saturdays, and Jim made me feel as though I was a big part of the Badgers' radio crew. He did not have to be that way, but he was. The same goes for Jim's lovely wife, Gloria, who often joined him in Madison for those home football games.
Jim retired more than a decade ago, and clearly the Packers have a great announcer in Wayne Larrivee. The Bucks' Ted Davis also does terrific work. But I think we all understand that for so many people, hearing Jim Irwin's voice takes us back to so many memorable moments.
From Wes Matthews' half-court heave to beat Michigan State in 1979, when he told his listeners, "Yes! He made it! He made it! He made it, and we win the ballgame! 83 to 81! From mid-court! Wesley Matthews made it!" to the 1981 Badger football team's upset of No. 1 Michigan.
On that September afternoon, Irwin described Matt VandenBoom's three interceptions, including the pick that sealed the game: "Back goes (Steve) Smith. He's gonna throw. He looks. This is the last play of the game. He fires it over the middle. Picked off! The Badgers win it. With 2 seconds to go, Matt VandenBoom intercepts the ball!"
Then there was the Packers' Super Bowl XXXI victory against the New England Patriots: "The Vince Lombardi Trophy is coming home where it started!" said Irwin that day.
Hearing those calls is like turning back the clock and being a kid again.
I am proud to say that I had the chance to work with Jim Irwin. I was very lucky to have had that opportunity. It isn't every day that one can say he was able to spend time with a Hall of Famer who was gracious, supportive and just a pretty down-to-earth man who loved his craft and performed it at a level that most of us can only hope to reach.
Rest in peace, Jim. Thank you for all of your wonderful calls, and thank you for believing in that young broadcaster.
By Mike Lucas on January 24, 2012 10:28 AM
Growth is not only a function of player development but team building.
January is usually a good starting point to take stock of any growing pains, too.
"Anytime you're into a season, especially conference play,'' said Indiana's Tom Crean, "and you can feel like you're getting better and improving, then, things are moving forward.
"Getting better is physical ... it's mental ... it's every aspect of it.''
Nobody has gotten better in January than Wisconsin, a winner of four straight games. That's the longest active winning streak in the conference. Minnesota has won three in a row.
Also consider that the Badgers started off the month mired in a three-game losing streak.
On Monday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Bruce Weber noted that his Illini had the misfortune "to play a Wisconsin team that had struggled and now is playing about as well as anybody.''
After Sunday's loss to the Badgers at Assembly Hall in Champaign -- where Illinois had won 14 in a row -- Weber confessed, "They made the plays ... they out-toughed us and out-hustled us.''
That was personified by one possession in the second half -- what UW's Mike Bruesewitz labeled "a mad scramble" -- during which Bruesewitz and Josh Gasser both hit the floor.
"Josh made a heckuva dive,'' Bruesewitz said. "He dove probably about eight feet for the ball and gave us a shot. Then I got on top of it.
"I looked back and I was going to throw it to Jared (Berggren) and then I looked up the floor and I saw Ben (Brust), Jordan (Taylor) and (Illinois' D.J.) Richardson.
"I thought, 'All right, I'll get it to Ben.' I tried to throw it as hard as I could but I was on my butt. So I did the best that I could to get it to him and he ended up finishing (with a lay-up at the other end).
"It was a good series of events and that kind of changed the game for us.''
Purdue's Matt Painter saw a change in the Badgers coming long before that.
"I thought they had some breakdowns offensively in a couple of their (Big Ten) losses but a lot of what they did was they just missed some shots,'' Painter said before facing Wisconsin on Jan. 12.
"They had some guys shooting low percentages that are capable of shooting high percentages. We gave them respect. We talked about not giving them rhythm shots.
"But they got too many early and got their heads up and that ended up being the difference.''
In winning for only the third time in the 45-year history of Mackey Arena, the Badgers snapped their losing streak and generated much-needed momentum and confidence for their turnaround.
Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team with a winning record (3-1) in league road games.
"Knock on wood, we've just got to keep it going,'' said senior point guard Jordan Taylor. "I can't put my finger on it. But we just have to keep trying to find ways to win on the road.''
Do the Badgers get more energized when they play in hostile environments like they have at Purdue and Illinois? Do they play with the proverbial chip on their shoulder on the road?
Taylor nodded and said, "I think a lot of the guys on our team weren't high-profile recruits or touted for their basketball ability. I think we just like proving people wrong.''
Part of the mission statement is outhustling or out-toughing opponents.
"Generally our motto has been, 'Find a way,''' Taylor related. "It's coach (Bo) Ryan's motto: scrap, fight, and claw. Do what you've got to do -- home or away -- and just try to find a way to win.''
Taylor has his own motto.
"Always work hard and never let anyone tell you that you can't do something,'' he said. "If you have a goal or dream set your sights on it and work your butt off to try and get it.
"Even if it doesn't work out, at least you gave it your best effort.''
Taylor relishes such gung-ho, one-for-all, all-for-one commitments.
"I just love being around the college atmosphere,'' he said. "High school doesn't compare to college in that you're around the guys here so much -- like 45 weeks of the year.
"You see these guys every day and they become like brothers.''
Ryan has admired Taylor's perseverance while transitioning with new starters this season.
"Point guard play is affected tremendously -- or more so than people realize -- by the other players around them,'' said Ryan, who played the position himself in high school and college.
"In all fairness, Jordan is playing with guys on the front line (Berggren, Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans) who logged less minutes (last season) than probably any front line in the Big Ten.
"You have to give Jordan credit for helping to bring these guys along and to include them in the mix -- for him to get comfortable with them and for them to get comfortable with him.
"You're into January now, so hopefully all those parts are meshing ... What I'm hoping is that we're maturing as a team and we can continue to move in that direction.
"It's a different team (this year) and we've had to find different ways to get things done.''
One constant has been defense. Opponents have struggled to score against the Badgers.
"Defensively our guys have bought in all year, which gives us a chance,'' Ryan said. "But if we're not shooting the ball well, we're like every other team in the country.
"If we can get consistent scoring from other positions (other than Taylor) then obviously we're a much better team. We're going to need that if we want to make things happen the rest of the season.
"Three-point shooting can be fickle. Sometimes the rim looks huge and other times it looks pretty small. Mentally you have to have players who believe the next shot is going in.
"If we keep doing that we have a chance to get some things done.''
You don't have to sell Crean on what the Badgers have been doing well lately.
"They know how to play and they've got a great guard certainly in Jordan Taylor,'' he said. "But they've got numerous guys who can play at a high level.
"When they've been at their best, they've had very good balance. That's what stands out to me. They just keep moving forward and that's a tribute to Bo and his staff and the continuity in the program.
"From what I've seen, there's no question they get great dribble penetration (from Taylor) and they're going to put five guys out on the court, as usual, that can score with range.
"Their system is very solid and strong.''
So is the Big Ten -- from top to bottom. There doesn't appear to be any easy out.
"If you don't have you're 'A' game every night, you're going to get beat,'' said Iowa's Fran McCaffrey.
Added Weber, "I'm not sure what's an upset, if there are upsets. Your main guys have got to play and be consistent if you're going to have success in the league.