Wisconsin is best known for football. It’s where Brett Favre became a household name with the Green Bay Packers and its state school, the University of Wisconsin, has gone to nine Rose Bowls and produced two Heisman Trophy winners.
But basketball isn’t far behind. Just ask Bo Ryan, who has spent the past 30 years as a college basketball head coach in the state. Ryan turned Wisconsin-Platteville into a Division III powerhouse and now has Wisconsin headed to its third Final Four.
Wisconsin hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2000 and will face Kentucky in a semifinal game Saturday at AT&T Stadium. Thousands of Wisconsin fans are expected to attend and even more will be tuning in.
“I tell you, the people here in this state are crazy about basketball,” Ryan said. “They realize that they didn’t invent it like some other states believe, but they also have a passion for it because there’s been a lot of success by state schools.
“They love it here, but they’re not so over the edge that they don’t understand. What I like about the Wisconsin fans is they understand these are student-athletes who actually are here for the purpose of an education first and playing ball second. But the love and passion for the game of basketball here in the state of Wisconsin is definitely as high as anywhere else.”
This year’s Badgers team has been easy to root for. They are well-disciplined, play fundamentally sound and are Ryan’s best team in his 13 years at the school.
And they’ve got an entertaining group of players away from the court, beginning with junior forward Frank Kaminsky, who jokingly described the team as “white guys” and dropped other one-liners during West Regional news conferences.
All joking aside, though, the Badgers have proven to be among the best teams in the country. Michigan State and Indiana are known as the basketball schools in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin has finally come out of the shadows by reaching the Final Four.
“Maybe we’ll be known as a football and basketball school now,” Kaminsky said.
Said junior point guard Traevon Jackson: “We have this stigma about Wisconsin as a type of program that plays only one way. This year, we’ve broken a lot of barriers. We’ve won in so many different ways and we played against some really good teams.”
Wisconsin got off to its best start in school history, beginning 16-0. The Badgers’ second win of the season was against Florida, another Final Four team, and they had other notable nonconference wins over tournament teams such as Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the East, and Saint Louis, the No. 5 seed in the Midwest.
Then they opened Big Ten play 3-0, including wins over then-ranked Iowa and Illinois, before losing five of six. But the Badgers got back on track, reached the conference’s tournament championship and carried that momentum into the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin opened with an easy win over American, holding it to 13 second-half points, and then overcame a 14-point deficit to beat Oregon and reach the Sweet 16.
Wisconsin had little trouble imposing its will against Baylor to get into the Elite Eight, and won a classic March Madness game in overtime against top-seeded Arizona on Saturday.
The victory to clinch a berth in the Final Four was the Badgers’ 30th of the season, tied for second-most in school history. The record is 31 wins by the 2007-08 team, and the Badgers are looking to break it.
“We want a national championship,” Kaminsky said. “We have made it to the opportunity to get there, so why not get it?”