It’s April, and the NCAA Division I college basketball season just ended for fans across the state.
Anytime that phrase can be written, it means a program made a deep NCAA Tournament run – and a rising tide lifts all boats. Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers deserved the attention they received in reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2000. They deserved to be there, too, as one of the best basketball teams in the country. But their run was just the cherry on top of an eventful college basketball season on the sport’s highest level.
Editor’s note: We didn't forget University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s NCAA Division III national championship, which is a tremendous and noteworthy accomplishment. We focus here solely on the Division I programs in the state, but that title only adds to a tremendous college basketball season in Wisconsin.
The Golden Eagles began the year with enormous outside expectation. The Big East had been broken apart and put back together, and Buzz Williams’ program was to be the flag bearer. Coming off an Elite Eight trip and three straight Sweet 16 appearances, Marquette was a pre-season top 20 team and picked to win the conference. There was concern, however. Vander Blue had unexpectedly left, thinking he could earn a paycheck playing basketball. Freshman Duane Wilson was injured. Jameel McKay bolted right after the team picture was taken. Williams himself wondered how proven his team was.
Those concerns all proved founded as the year wore on, as Marquette struggled to stay above .500 on the year and never contended for the top spot in the conference. The end result was a 17-15 record and no invitation to the NCAA Tournament or the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The program was hit with another sudden, unexpected departure when Williams bolted for Virginia Tech on the eve of the tournament’s first round games.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Only a Final Four run could overshadow what became the second-best story in Division I basketball in this state. The Panthers won eight games last season. Eight. They were picked dead last in the Horizon League to start the year.
Then, some fresh blood in the form of transfers coalesced with some of the other transfers and home grown players and the Panthers got off to a 9-2 start.
UWM struggled down the stretch, but won enough to host an opening round game in the Horizon League tournament, which started them on an unlikely championship run that included beating the league’s regular season champs, rival UW-Green Bay, on its home court, en route to an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
It was the Panthers’ first visit to the Big Dance since 2007, and while they were matched up with the third-ranked team in the country in the first round, had they been able to make anything – anything – perhaps that great story would’ve been even greater with a first round upset.
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Place firmly at the other end of the spectrum than their Milwaukee counterparts, Brian Wardle’s Phoenix began the year as the preseason favorite to win the league. The Phoenix took the Badgers to the limit in the third game of the season, losing 69-66 at home. Then, following a loss to Eastern Michigan on Dec. 10, the Phoenix rattled off 12 straight wins – including a big win over eventual ACC champ Virginia – en route to a regular season league championship, the first one for UWGB in nearly two decades.
By virtue of their Horizon League title, the Phoenix did secure an automatic bid into the NIT for the first time in 22 years, where they lost again at home to Belmont in the first round.
Individually, Wardle was named the league’s Coach of the Year while guard Keifer Sykes was named Player of the Year. Alec Brown captured the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
University of Wisconsin
This season is fresh on everyone’s mind, and the pain of losing to Kentucky by one point in the Final Four will linger for quite some time, but this Badgers team was one for the ages.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, this marked just the second time a team from Madison reached the national semi-finals. Wisconsin team won 16 straight to the start they year, rose to as high as No. 3 in the country, and had a late year eight game winning streak as well. Bo Ryan, a Wisconsin coaching lifer, topped 700 career wins before the tournament began.
Individually, Frank Kaminsky was a first team All-Big Ten selection and was the named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player during the tournament. Freshman Nigel Hayes was the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year.
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.