The Wisconsin Badgers are in a unique position this weekend.
In order to make history, to compete for the program’s first national championship in the modern era, they have to prevent it by derailing the Kentucky Wildcats, who are making the best bid at an unbeaten season since the 1991 University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels.
And if the Badgers do this, if they knock off the 38-0 Wildcats Saturday night in Indianapolis, the state of Wisconsin, Badgers and Big Ten fans and alumni around the globe – along with those who picked them to advance for entertainment purposes in their brackets – will celebrate.
As they should.
To earn the right to win a national title is a rare and special thing, especially in this state – it’s been 74 years after all since Wisconsin earned that right and 38 years since Marquette University cut down the nets – but man, it’ll ruin basketball history.
And honestly, that would suck.
The NCAA tournament began with an eight-team field in 1939, which means through Connecticut’s championship last year (over Kentucky) there have been 75 champions. That’s not a lot, mind you, but it’s far more than the list of unbeaten champions.
If Kentucky does manage to beat Wisconsin and then either Duke or Michigan State, there will be eight undefeated champs – but in my opinion, this will be the greatest season in men’s college basketball history.
Here is the short of list of undefeated champs:
1956: San Francisco (29-0)
1957: North Carolina (32-0)
1964: UCLA (30-0)
1967: UCLA (30-0)
1972: UCLA (30-0)
1973: UCLA (30-0)
1976: Indiana (32-0)
Since Bob Knight’s Hoosiers became the third team of that decade to go unbeaten, the NCAA has expanded its field to 40 (1979), then to 48 (1980), 52 (1983), 53 (1984), 64 (1985), 65 (2001) and then its current 68-team bracket in 2011.
Not only has the NCAA Tournament field more than doubled since 1976, the competition from one through 68 is far more balanced. And escaping the tournament unscathed isn't as impressive, really, than making it through conference and non-conference play, and then the "new" conference tournaments that did not exist in the 1970s.
For Kentucky to get to this point unbeaten is nearly miraculous. For them to go a perfect 40-0? That's almost an insane thought.
And for the first time in my college basketball-conscious lifetime (I was 10 when UNLV lost to Duke in 1991, and at that point, as a Chicago kid, all I cared about was the Bulls’ ascent to dynastic levels) I’m rooting for the favorite in the NCAA Tournament.
I’ve always watched the tournament in the hope of chaos. I’ve wanted George Mason and Butler (Horizon League Butler, not Big East Butler) to win it all. I wanted "Dunk City" (Florida Gulf Coast) to slam its way to a final. Anyone but the blue bloods.
I always tired of the Izzo’s and the Coach K’s and the Calipari’s and the Pitino’s and the Donovan’s and whoever else always seems to be in the mix for a championship.
But then this Kentucky thing happened.
And, for one year, it flipped me.
I want to see history.
Not state history. Not Big Ten history. Not "Bo Ryan is a great coach" history. I want to see perfection, the impossible become the possible.
This has nothing to do with Wisconsin, actually. They just happen to be the team next in line for the Wildcats.
I understand where I’m at though, and I am most definitely in the minority in this state.
And should the Badgers lose again to the Wildcats in the Final Four, it will be disappointing. Fans will be heartbroken.
But the funny thing about college basketball is that reaching this point, this level of the tournament, is a signal of greatness. No one remembers who lost in the semi-finals of any other sport except this one. So, these last two Badgers teams will go down as the greatest in school history, and the entire roster should be retired five or 10 years from now and hung forever from the rafters at the Kohl Center.
Ryan should get his due with induction into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, now with two Division I Final Fours on his resume to go with his four Division III national titles UW-Platteville.
So, in a way, the Badgers have a made their history. They have secured their legacy.
I’m not saying a national title is gravy, but it kind of is around these parts. Coaches and fans and boosters can say winning national titles are the expectation, but when the state has only two to speak of at the Division I level, that’s not really accurate. Final Fours matter.
(Side note: I do have a soft spot for Badgers senior Frank Kaminsky. He was a part of the last Chicago area high school class of hoopers I covered before I came to Milwaukee, and should Wisconsin win he will mark the fourth different player from the Illinois high school class of 2011 who has played for a national title. The three previous players have won. So, if the Badgers do advance, I will be rooting for that odd bit of history, too.)
Call me what you want, but I’ll leave you with this: Coaches and players always say no individual, no team, is ever above the game. And no matter how great a team, or an individual is, that saying is always true. So it’s the game, and its history, that I’m rooting for on Saturday night.
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.