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Wisconsin teams reached new heights in 2010s

Wisconsin teams reached new heights in 2010s

Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers Super Bowl Title 2010

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (left) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrate after winning the Super Bowl against the Steelers on Feb. 6, 2011.

There are 521-plus weeks in a decade, and it took nearly every one to tell the story of Wisconsin sports in the 2010s.

Wisconsin teams continued to collect accolades up until the calendar flipped, as the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team lost the national championship, and the Green Bay Packers wrapped up their sixth NFC North title of the decade and a first-round playoff bye with consecutive wins over Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit.

The past month capped off a decade-long run of standout performances as Wisconsin spent time in the spotlight in every major sport the state competes in.

While it’s still a surprise to see the Milwaukee Brewers or Bucks playing in the final month of the season, it’s no longer out of the ordinary for Wisconsin teams to be perennial contenders. It could be argued that the ridiculous run that Boston teams are on makes Massachusetts the only state that’s been more consistently relevant than Wisconsin in the sporting world since 2010.

In the last 10 years, the Brewers and Packers set team records for number of playoff appearances in a decade, while the Bucks made their most playoff appearances since the 1980s, and all three professional teams have had at least one league MVP — the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (2011 and 2014), the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019), and the Brewers’ Ryan Braun (2011) and Christian Yelich (2018).

Furthermore, the University of Wisconsin continued its rise that started in the 1990s. In the 2010s, the men’s basketball team doubled its Final Four total while setting a program record for Sweet 16 appearances; the football team went to a program-best three Rose Bowls (with a fourth coming on the first day of 2020), the women’s hockey team won a pair of national titles and went to eight Frozen Fours; the men’s hockey team reached one Frozen Four; the men’s cross country team won an NCAA title; the women’s volleyball team reached five regional finals, including two national runner-up finishes; women’s swimmers Maggie Meyer (2011) and Beata Nelson (2019) won the only national championships in program history; and men’s cross country runner Morgan McDonald became the third athlete ever to win the NCAA men’s cross country, indoor 3,000 meters, indoor 5,000 and outdoor 5,000 titles in the same season.

Sure, the 2011 Super Bowl-winning Packers are the only high-profile team that came home with a season-ending trophy, but every Wisconsin team had its time in the sun over a decade that saw them continually trying to break through their ceilings.

Green Bay Packers — 2011 Super Bowl; 6 NFC North titles; 102-56-2

It can be hard to remember how good the Packers have been because of how much the state frets over everything they do. But they were very productive for much of the 2010s, with the exception of a 7-9 record in 2017 and 6-9-1 record in 2018, which led to the firing of Mike McCarthy and hiring of Matt LaFleur.

Green Bay’s eight playoff appearances in the 2010s (not counting the upcoming postseason) are second only to New England’s 10 — and if you’re going to compare yourself to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, you’re going to lose. The Packers went 102-56-2 in the regular season from 2010-2019. New England (125-35) is the only team with a better record in the 2010s, while Pittsburgh finished 102-57-1.

The 2019 Packers won the team’s sixth NFC North title in the decade. It was a decade which they dominated their rivals, going 17-4 against Chicago, 13-6 against Minnesota and 12-8 against Detroit. Green Bay went a perfect 6-0 against the NFC North this season.

The Packers’ dynamic offense entered the decade looking like a potential dynasty, winning the 2011 Super Bowl and starting 13-0 the following season with Rodgers playing alongside Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb and James Jones. They put up huge numbers, including averaging 35.0 points per game in 2011 — a year in which teams were averaging 22.2 points per game across the league — thanks to Rodgers’ 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and NFL-record 122.5 passer rating in 15 games. But they couldn’t always outscore opponents in big games, which frequently came back to bite them.

Despite defensive struggles, a careful approach to free agency, a coaching change, a defensive coordinator change and a general manager change, the Packers will exit the decade with one Super Bowl and two more trips to the conference championship in their eight playoff appearances. In comparison, the 2000s Packers went to the playoffs five times and appeared in one conference championship.

Milwaukee Bucks — 2019 Central Division title; 6 playoff appearances; 402-406

The NBA lets 16 of the league’s 30 teams into the playoffs, but it’s still remarkable the Bucks were one of those 16 teams six times in a decade that was largely forgettable until the last few years. The Bucks were stuck in purgatory much of the 2010s, not being good enough to be a true threat or bad enough to get a high draft pick. Then they hit gold with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft, selecting Antetokounmpo in what was the first move in turning the Bucks into the championship contender they are as the calendar turns.

The turnaround wasn’t immediate, as the Bucks went 15-67 in 2013-14 with a young, raw Antetokounmpo. Questions about moving the organization to another city faded when Wes Edens and Marc Lasry bought the team in 2014 and broke ground on Fiserv Forum in 2016. Things progressed from there, as Antetokounmpo developed into a juggernaut, Fiserv replaced the Bradley Center, the Bucks became a relatively viable free-agent destination and the 2018-19 Bucks won their first playoff series since 2001.

The Bucks cruised to a 60-22 regular season in 2018-19, winning their first Central Division title since 2000-01. They earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and beat Detroit and Boston before being eliminated by Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks hadn’t won a playoff series since advancing to the 2001 conference finals, where they loss to Philadelphia in seven games.

Milwaukee has three straight winning seasons for the first time since a 1998-2001 run that included going 28-22 during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. The Bucks also went 41-41 in 2014-15, giving them just one losing season in the last five years. Winners of 30 of their first 35 games of 2019-20, the Bucks are once again running away with the league’s best record.

Whether or not the Bucks remain relevant next decade depends on what they do this season — and what that means for Antetokounmpo, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021. If the Bucks can entice the 6-foot-11 star from Greece to stay put, they should contend throughout the 2020s.

Milwaukee Brewers — 2 NL Central titles; 3 playoff appearances; 824-797

The Brewers only went to the postseason three times in the 2010s, but that’s massive for an organization that doubled their all-time playoff appearances. Back-to-back postseason trips in 2018 and 2019 joined 2011, 2008, 1982 and 1981 as the only appearances since the organization was formed as the Seattle Pilots in 1969.

The Brewers made two trips to the NLCS, a 2011 run that ended in Game 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals, and a 2018 run that ended in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Milwaukee had a winning record in seven of the past 10 seasons, including the last four. Conversely, the Brewers had just two winning seasons in the 2000s and two in the 1990s, while they accomplished the feat six times in the 1980s. The Brewers won their first division titles since joining the NL Central in 1994, claiming the crown in 2011 and 2018.

The consistent success allowed Milwaukee to finish the decade with an 824-797 record, beating out everyone in the NL Central except St. Louis (899-721).

The Brewers have been a consistently well-run organization under owner Mark Attanasio, general manager David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell. They’ve been able to put top-flight talent on the field.

Braun took home the 2011 NL MVP, while Yelich claimed the 2018 award and came within several votes — and an injury — of doing it again in 2019. Those two have spearheaded separate groups, starting when Braun led a 2011 team that included Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, Zach Grienke, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan. The 36-year-old Braun has shifted out of the lead role during the recent run, but is still key in the Yelich-led groups of 2018-19 that also included Lorenzo Cain, Eric Thames, Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw, Josh Hader and Jesus Aguilar.

University of Wisconsin football — 3 Rose Bowl appearances; 3 Big Ten Championships; 102-33

The UW football team didn’t necessarily play in a playoff game in the 2010s, as they haven’t qualified for the four-team College Football Playoff since it started in 2014-15. But the Badgers started the decade with three straight trips — all losses — to the Rose Bowl, which was essentially their Super Bowl at the time.

Despite having success for the last 25 years, the Badgers’ 2011 trip to the Rose Bowl was their first since 2000. While not in the 2010s, Wisconsin played in its 10th Rose Bowl game on Wednesday — three in the first 90-plus years of the program and seven in the past 27 years.

While it’s embarrassing for most Power 5 conference teams to miss a bowl game at this point, the Badgers did their job in the 2010s, becoming one of only 13 FBS teams to reach a bowl every year. Wisconsin, which is 6-4 in bowls dating back to a 20-14 win over Miami in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl, hasn’t missed bowl season since it went 5-7 in 2001.

The Badgers struggled in bowls at the start of the decade, losing the 2011 Rose Bowl 21-19 to TCU, the 2012 Rose Bowl 45-38 to Oregon, the 2013 Rose Bowl 20-14 to Stanford, and the 2014 Capital One Bowl 34-24 to South Carolina. However, they have won five straight since then, a 34-31 overtime win over Auburn in the 2015 Capital One Bowl, a 23-21 win over USC in the 2015 Holiday Bowl, a 24-16 win over Western Michigan in the 2017 Cotton Bowl, a 34-24 win over Miami in the 2017 Orange Bowl, and a 35-3 win over Miami in the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl. Miami’s program isn’t what it once was, but beating the Hurricanes in three bowl games in 10 seasons is quite the turnaround for a Wisconsin program that Miami used to schedule as a non-conference cupcake.

Wisconsin won three Big Ten championships in the decade, tying Michigan State in 2010 before winning the first two conference championship games in 2011 and 2012. The Badgers have appeared in six of the first nine Big Ten Championships, while their 64-20 record in regular-season conference games trails only Ohio State (74-10).

The Badgers had seven 10-win seasons in the 2010s — the first full decade in which Wisconsin didn’t have a losing season. Wisconsin (102) was one of eight teams to reach the 100-win mark in the decade, joining Alabama (123), Ohio State (117), Clemson (117), Oklahoma (109), Boise State (107), LSU (102) and Oregon (100).

Many big-time players pass through Madison, including J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, Jonathan Taylor and 11 offensive lineman drafted to the NFL. Wisconsin’s 11 consensus All-Americans in the 2010s trails only Alabama (27), Florida State (13) and LSU (13).

Wisconsin’s consistent success came despite a decade filled with turmoil. Head coach Brett Bielema departed the program after the 2012 regular season for a less-than-lateral move to Arkansas, leaving former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez to coach the Rose Bowl. Gary Andersen took over the program, but never seemed to fit, leaving the Badgers for the Oregon State job after two years — once again, making Alvarez return to the sideline for the 2014 Outback Bowl. After two head coaches and a number of assistants departed amid reports of noncompetitive pay, former quarterback and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, a Madison native, returned home in 2015 to take the head coaching job and settle the program back down.

University of Wisconsin men’s basketball — NCAA runner-up; 2 Final Fours; 6 Sweet 16s; Big Ten regular season and tournament title; 247-105

Wisconsin basketball reached heights that were never expected of a program that seemed to be good but never great. That all changed in the middle of the decade, when Frank Kaminsky burst on the scene to lead a team that was determined to change the way the country saw UW basketball.

They did so, temporarily — going to the Final Four in 2014 and 2015, including nearly knocking off Duke in the 2015 national championship. The Badgers went to nine NCAA tournaments in the decade, only missing out when their run of 19 straight appearances ended in 2018. The Badgers also set a program record with six trips to the Sweet 16 in the 2010s.

Unfortunately, the program didn’t exactly change in the long term. Long-time head coach Bo Ryan retired several games into the 2015-16 season, leaving Greg Gard to take over. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig carried the Badgers to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2016 and 2017, but the momentum built up in the middle of the decade slowly faded. The Final Four recruiting bump never came and the Badgers have struggled to develop talent during the latter third of the decade.

The new-look Badgers went 15-18 in a difficult 2017-18 before bouncing back to go 23-11 in 2018-19. Despite the relative downturn, the Badgers’ 123-60 record in Big Ten regular-season games in the 2010s trails only Michigan State (130-54). Wisconsin’s consistency allowed it to compile a better record than programs like Purdue (121-63), Ohio State (119-65) and Michigan (114-70).

The Badgers had three consensus All-Americans during the 2010s — Kaminsky, Jordan Taylor and Ethan Happ. Kaminsky also took home the Naismith Award and Associated Press Player of the Year as the best player in the country in 2015. Jon Leuer (2011), Sam Dekker (2015) and Kaminsky (2015) were all selected in the NBA draft, while Hayes and Duje Dukan earned limited NBA minutes.

Looking forward

It’s been a fun road, but the more successful teams are, the less fun the major moments can be. Crushing losses ended many of these runs, including the 2015 NFC title game against the Seahawks; NCAA Tournament games against Kentucky, Duke, Florida and Notre Dame; Rose Bowl games against TCU, Oregon and Stanford; the Bucks’ series against the Raptors; and the Brewers’ series against the Cardinals, Dodgers and Nationals.

Wisconsin entered the decade entitled about the Packers. Now, fans are starting to get there — on various levels — with all five major teams. Even the people that remember the less-than-impressive days of the 1970s and 1980s have slowed down with the “enjoy the wins, it never used to be this way” stuff. They’re in the same boat as the younger generation now, having had at least one team contend for a championship nearly every year for 25 years.

Recent years have shown that the sports cycle is much more fun when you have someone to follow deep into each season. Wisconsin teams are established enough that that should continue into the early 2020s.

Follow Brock Fritz on Twitter @BrockFritz or contact him at 608-963-0344.

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