It’s been a heck of a year for Bo Ryan and his Wisconsin Badgers basketball team.
Over a year ago, they became the first Badgers squad since 2000 to reach the Final Four, losing to Kentucky, 74-73, in Arlington, Texas.
They returned all but one starter off that squad, and the honors came quickly and furiously, individually and as a program.
All year long, they were favorites.
And, they handled it impeccably.
Playing in the world of favorites oftentimes is far more difficult than that of the underdog, or the merely good team that somehow gets hot. The target is always on your back, and even if you win, you can be criticized.
When you’re a favorite, how you win almost as important as securing the "w" itself.
And give the Badgers credit. They played a tough non-conference schedule that included wins over No. 15 Oklahoma, No. 23 Georgetown and No. 25 Boise State. They fell to No. 2 Duke at home.
The Big Ten was competitive, as you can imagine, but not as strong as usual. But, No. 8 Maryland handed the Badgers their last loss, a 59-53 defeat in College Park, Md. back on Feb. 24.
They had one "slip up," a 67-62 loss to Rutgers in early January.
Really, it’s the only "blemish" in a historic season.
But last week, I wondered how these Badgers would react to being "the" team in the Big Ten tournament.
Well, we found out with convincing double-digit victories over Michigan and Purdue, and then battling a tough Michigan State team through regulation before winning by double digits again in overtime.
The NCAA selection committee saw enough, too, and gave the Badgers the No. 1 seed in the West regional.
It’s the first top seed in program history.
What a feat.
What pressure, too.
When you’re the one (or one of four "one’s" in this tournament) you are expected to win, to reach the Final Four.
Which is an odd spot for Ryan and his team to be in. After all, last year was the first time Ryan led a team to that point as a Division I coach. Now he’s expected to get back.
And already, people are looking ahead to a Final Four rematch with what would be an undefeated Kentucky team in the national semi-final.
Talk about pressure.
Not a soul cares about the first opponent, the 16th-seeded Coast Carolina Chanticleers or their Big South championship.
No one cares that a potential Sweet 16 contest could be Oregon – essentially the No. 26 team in the country as they finished with 69 top 25 votes to fall just shy of Boise St. in the rankings – or that the Badgers had to rally to pass the Ducks in the second round of last year’s tournament at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
No one cares that there are four other top 25 teams in the nation in their bracket, either.
You’re No. 1. You’re the coach, and the players, that are supposed to win.
I’ve heard a drumbeat, already, that an early upset in the tournament shouldn’t diminish the regular season and conference tournament championships. That a No. 1 seed should be heralded.
And while it won’t erase those things, and while all of these players can come back to the Kohl Center in 2025 and be recognized for those great things, an upset before reaching the Final Four in Indianapolis would put a little tarnish on those trophies.
Because the tournament is how programs and coaches are judged, both in history, and for a season.
Losing in the Final Four carries little shame. Losing before hand, that’s another story.
That’s what this Badgers team faces as they begin tournament play Friday night.
It’s a heck of a weight to burden. Thus far, the Badgers have proven they can handle it. Now comes the toughest of all tests.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.