As we all know, the global coronavirus pandemic shut down March Madness. For the Wisconsin Badgers, who ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak to win a share of the Big Ten title, this meant they were robbed of a chance to see if they could carry their hot streak into the postseason.
The chances seem high for more cherished March Madness memories from the Badgers in the near future. After all, they’ll bring back one of the most experienced, senior-laden rosters in college basketball next season and have a bevy of touted recruits coming in to take the baton after them.
For now, let’s take a look back at some of the best March Madness moments (Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament) by Wisconsin basketball in the 2010s.
(Dis)honorable mention: The day James Naismith wept
Before we delve into all the warm, fuzzy memories, let’s first humble ourselves by revisiting the time Wisconsin was involved in a bona fide basketball atrocity. I speak not of Ryan Evans’s jump-shot free throws, but of the Badgers’ fateful meeting with Penn State in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament.
Wisconsin has been involved in more than its share of games that could politely qualify as rock fights over the years, but this went far enough to answer the hypothetical “what if basketball was played with a literal boulder?”
The two teams combined to score just 69 points. There was nothing nice about it.
Wisconsin’s leading scorer was Jordan Taylor, who had 16 points on 7-of-21 shooting. Talor Battle was Penn State’s leading scorer with nine points on 3-of-18 shooting. The Badgers shot 29.4 percent overall from the field and 9.5 percent from three.
The final score: Penn State 36, Wisconsin 33.
James Naismith rose from the grave to put out a joint press release with Dick Bennett disowning the game. In a shock move at the end of the season, Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis bolted from his alma mater to take over at Navy. I assume he was racked with guilt over his role in this heinous affair and couldn’t in good conscious continue on with the Nittany Lions.
But did anyone truly face the consequences for their roles in this basketball blight? Bo Ryan showed no remorse and coached Wisconsin for over four more years. Then-Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney offered no rebuke, the NCAA handed down no sanctions and no international criminal tribunal was formed.
Everyone involved continued their basketball careers unabated, which was good news for the Badgers given what lay ahead for the program throughout the remainder of the decade.
10. The Rob Wilson Game
For fans of a certain age, Wisconsin’s dominance of Indiana over the past two decades must seem like a strange fever dream.
When the Hoosiers were a college basketball powerhouse under Bob Knight, Wisconsin was one of the many teams they’d regularly wail on. Under Knight, Indiana went 48-6 against the Badgers, including a staggering 31-game winning streak in the series spanning from 1980 to 1997.
Since Indiana fired Knight in 2000, Wisconsin is 28-8 against its Big Ten counterparts, including having won 21 of the last 24 meetings. The Badgers consistently find new ways to make life a living hell for the Hoosiers, but none were more out of left field than The Rob Wilson Game during the 2012 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
Throughout his collegiate career, Wilson averaged just 2.7 points per game and started a grand total of two games as a Badger. But on March 9, 2012, he etched his name in program lore with the performance of his life.
Wilson had started contributing more off the bench toward the end of the regular season — scoring 32 points over the last four games — but no one could’ve predicted what was coming. He went 11 of 16 from the field, including going 7 of 10 from deep, to set a career high and a new Wisconsin Big Ten Tournament record with 30 points in a 79-71 win.
Additionally, it was the victory that moved Bo Ryan past Bud Foster into first place on the all-time coaching wins list in Badgers history.
9. Back-to-back Sweet Sixteen trips for Bo
There was a time where the Bo Ryan-era Badgers had a reputation for being a regular-season force year in and year out but weren’t often considered to be a serious threat to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
By the end of Ryan’s career in Madison, that obviously changed significantly (more on that later), but the first steps toward shaking that reputation came prior to the back-to-back Final Four runs with consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2011 and 2012.
In 2011, the fourth-seeded Badgers beat No. 13 seed Belmont 72-58 in the opening round and then held on to beat No. 5 seed Kansas State 70-65 thanks to timely free throws and a crucial block by Jordan Taylor, sending them to their fourth Sweet Sixteen under Ryan.
They still had yet to visit the tournament’s second weekend in back-to-back years during Ryan’s tenure, but that finally changed in 2012.
After blowing past No. 13 seed Montana 73-49 in the opening round, No. 4 seed Wisconsin met fifth-seeded Vanderbilt for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. Sophomore Ben Brust caught fire in the second half, including a stretch where scored all 11 of the Badgers’ points to help them keep pace with the Commodores.
Vanderbilt sharpshooter John Jenkins had a chance to give his team a late lead with an open shot from three, but it was off the mark. Wisconsin held on to win 60-57 and advance again to the Sweet Sixteen — a place they’d become very familiar with in the ensuing years.
8. Zak Showalter’s One Shining Moment
Zak Showalter is a Germantown native and a lifelong fan of the Green Bay Packers. So his particular slice of March Madness heroics had to feel surreal.
In the final seconds of their 2017 Sweet Sixteen matchup with No. 4 seed Florida, the Badgers trailed 72-69. Showalter took an inbounds pass from Nigel Hayes and took matters into his own hands, drilling an off-balance three with 2.1 seconds left to tie the game and eventually send it to overtime.
After hitting the shot, Showalter turned to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was cheering the Badgers on from courtside at Madison Square Garden, and marked the occasion by doing the future Hall of Famer’s trademark title belt celebration.
Alas, Showalter’s storybook moment didn’t last for long. This isn’t higher on the list because Wisconsin took its tribute to Rodgers and the Packers a little too literally by proceeding to lose a postseason game in overtime.
Still, Showalter’s shot will continue to live on alongside Rodgers’s playoff Hail Mary against the Arizona Cardinals in the pantheon of best Wisconsin sports plays that came in defeat.
7. Bradley Center becomes Kohl Center East
If you ever wondered what an NCAA Tournament home game for Wisconsin might look like, its 2014 second-round matchup with Oregon is the closest thing we’ll ever get to an answer.
The seventh-seeded Ducks got off to a hot start, leading by as much as 14 in the first half on their way to a 49-37 halftime advantage. The Badgers answered with a blistering 27-10 run to start the second half and take the lead to the thunderous approval of the deeply partisan crowd.
Oregon did take the lead back late in the game, but Wisconsin’s Ben Brust put the Badgers back in front for good with just over a minute ago. Brust’s three with 1:09 remaining not only seized the lead back, but also made him Wisconsin’s all-time leader in career 3-pointers made.
The Badgers’ season was saved and their march toward the Final Four continued forward from the friendly confines of the Bradley Center (rest its soul).
6. Déjà vu in the Elite Eight
Some say that Arizona head coach Sean Miller still regularly wakes up in cold sweats due to Frank Kaminsky-induced nightmares. Or that could just be his regular sweating. It’s impossible to tell with him.
Wisconsin and Arizona met in the Elite Eight for a second straight season in 2015, with the Badgers as the 1 seed and the Wildcats sporting a 2 seed this time around. Arizona held a narrow 33-30 lead at halftime before Wisconsin went supernova from deep in the second half.
The Badgers finished the night a ludicrous 12 of 18 from 3-point range. Arizona didn’t even shoot badly in the second half, but the Wildcats couldn’t keep pace with Wisconsin’s ludicrous 1.62 points per possession over the final 20 minutes. Kaminsky scored 29 points on 9-of-20 shooting and Sam Dekker finished with 27 points and went 5 of 6 from deep.
No shot was bigger than Dekker’s late dagger three. Wisconsin had the ball up 81-76 with a chance to run the clock under 20 seconds. Arizona didn’t foul to preserve time for reasons that I’m sure made sense in Sean Miller’s head. As the shot clock winded down, Dekker uncorked a three with a perfect rainbow arc that was right on the money.
Making the moment all the sweeter for Dekker, he drilled the victory-clinching shot about two feet away from Bo Ryan (who would frequently pull Dekker out of games during his Wisconsin career if he so much as breathed on a defender the wrong way). Even all-time sharpshooter and Turner sports color commentator Reggie Miller was left cackling after the Dekker dagger that propelled the Badgers to a second consecutive Final Four.
5. The Bo Ryan-Tom Izzo rivalry swan song
Placing a Big Ten Tournament game ahead of an Elite Eight win might seem like a stretch, but this was as good of a conference tournament game as you’ll ever see.
Coming off an outright regular-season Big Ten title, the general consensus seemed to be that the Badgers still needed to win the Big Ten Tournament to completely secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. To do it, they were tasked with facing Michigan State in the championship game in what turned out to be the last-ever meeting between Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo.
Things were starting look bleak for the Badgers when the Spartans pushed their lead out to 11 with under eight minutes left in the second half. But before they could even hit the next media timeout, Wisconsin had completely erased that lead.
The game settled into a thrilling back-and-forth affair featuring big play after big play for the remainder of regulation before eventually heading to overtime knotted up at 69-69. It was the first and remains the only Big Ten Tournament championship game to go to OT. Therefore Wisconsin is still the only school to score points in overtime of a Big Ten Tournament title game.
The Badgers outscored the Spartans 11-0 in the extra session to wrap up the tourney title and secure an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed. With Bo Ryan stepping down the following December, it meant the end of the Bo Ryan-Tom Izzo rivalry that helped define Big Ten basketball for a decade and a half.
You couldn’t have asked for a much better game for the rivalry to go out on.
4. Knocking off defending champion Villanova
One can only speculate what Greg Gard did in 2017 to incur the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s wrath. The Badgers seemed destined for a 6 seed or maybe a 7 seed if things didn’t break their way. Instead, the committee slapped them with an 8 seed and shipped them off to snowy Buffalo.
As a result, a win over Virginia Tech set them up for a second-round matchup with the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats. For their part, Villanova, the defending national champions and No. 1 overall seed, couldn’t have been too thrilled that an eighth-seeded Wisconsin was its reward.
Trailing 57-50 with under 5:30 to play, the Badgers mustered up a strong finishing kick. They outscored the Wildcats 15-5 the rest of the way. With the game tied at 62-62, Nigel Hayes used a timely head fake to momentarily throw off Mikal Bridges and put in a reverse layup to give Wisconsin the lead with 11.4 seconds left.
On the other end, Vitto Brown successfully pulled off a risky defensive play, using both hands to rip the ball away from Josh Hart as he drove to the basket.
The Badgers escaped with a 65-62 victory to advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen, with this one being their second straight second-round upset win.
3. Bronson Koenig’s buzzer beater bests Xavier
Bronson Koenig always seemed to have a knack for hitting the big shot during his career as a Wisconsin Badger. None were more iconic than his buzzer beater to take down Xavier.
The 2015-16 season was a roller coaster ride for the Badgers. They lost at home to Western Illinois in the season opener, Bo Ryan abruptly stepped down as head coach 12 games in and they sat at 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play in mid-January.
Eventually, Wisconsin found its groove under then-interim head coach Greg Gard, winning 11 of its last 13 regular-season games to ensure its spot in the NCAA Tournament (and getting the interim tag removed next to Gard’s name). As a No. 7 seed, the Badgers outlasted No. 10 seed Pittsburgh 47-43 in the Battle for Paul Chryst to advance to the second round for a matchup with the second-seeded Xavier Musketeers.
Xavier led by eight with a little less than six minutes to go, but Wisconsin began its trudge toward a comeback. Koenig eventually tied the game at 63-63 by burying an NBA range 3-pointer with 14 seconds to play. Zak Showalter took a charge on the other end to set the Badgers up with the last shot of regulation.
With two seconds left and the ball in the frontcourt, Ethan Happ dished the inbounds pass to Koenig, who hoisted up a contested three that caught nothing but net as the final buzzer sounded.
Koenig was mobbed by his teammates, a shell-shocked Bill Murray (whose son was an assistant under Xavier head coach Chris Mack) stared on in disbelief from the crowd and the Badgers moved on to the Sweet Sixteen.
A fun piece of Wisconsin sports trivia from this game: Wisconsin Badgers radio voice Matt Lepay, Milwaukee Brewers TV play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson (calling the game for TNT) and Green Bay Packers radio voice Wayne Larrivee (calling the game on the radio for Westwood One) all got to make a call for one of the most iconic shots in Wisconsin basketball history.
One can only hope that we eventually get unearthed audio of Bob Uecker calling the Koenig shot from the comfort of his home.
2. Bo Ryan finally gets to the Final Four
Starting in 1976, Bo Ryan and his father, Butch, began an annual tradition of attending each year’s Final Four together. The colorful Butch Ryan eventually became a bit of a celebrity in college basketball coaching circles thanks to these trips. Naturally, they dreamed of one day sharing the experience of Bo coaching the Badgers to the Final Four.
Sadly, Butch passed away in August 2013 before he had the chance to fulfill that goal with his son. But the 2013-14 Badgers had a newfound charge of motivation in their quest to get the Final Four monkey off their coach’s back.
That opportunity came in Anaheim in the Elite Eight, where No. 2 seed Wisconsin squared off against No. 1 seed Arizona with a spot in the national semifinals on the line.
Forty minutes wasn’t enough to decide a winner and the game headed to overtime. It remained tight in OT, with the Badgers clinging to a 64-63 lead in the final seconds. A lengthy replay review of a Wisconsin inbounds that was deflected out of bounds resulted in a dubious overturn that gave the Wildcats the ball and a chance to win with 2.3 seconds remaining.
Nick Johnson’s attempt at a game winner came too late (and was off the mark anyway). Behind Frank Kaminsky’s double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, the Badgers had finally given Ryan — a four-time Division III national champion at UW–Platteville and architect of one of college basketball’s most consistent programs in Madison — his long-awaited shot at coaching in the Final Four.
It’s the most iconic win in school history. Nothing short of a national championship could conceivably top this history-making night of catharsis and elation in Indianapolis.
In 2014, the Badgers’ hopes of a national title were dashed by Kentucky thanks to a late Aaron Harrison three. Frank Kaminsky announced he would return to Madison for his senior season shortly after the heartbreaking loss and the stage was set for their eventual redemption.
All throughout the following season, Wisconsin didn’t shy away from its desire to get another crack at the Wildcats. They eventually got their wish.
The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats entered the Final Four sporting a 38-0 record, leaving them two wins away from becoming the first Division I college basketball team to finish the season unbeaten since Bob Knight’s 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0.
College basketball history and one heck of a revenge story were both at play, but this matchup had even more intriguing undercurrents. Based on Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metrics, Wisconsin boasted the best offense and Kentucky featured the best defense of the KenPom era (dating back to the 2001-02 season) going into the game.
The matchup lived up to whatever hype you could’ve placed on it and wasn’t decided until the final minutes. A Sam Dekker step-back triple with 1:41 remaining broke a 60-60 tie and the Badgers would never relinquish that lead again on their way to a 71-64 victory.
Wisconsin thwarted Kentucky’s date with destiny, exacted its revenge and punched its ticket to the national championship game for the first time since 1941. There’s no need to rehash the events of the following Monday’s game against Duke.
Instead, stick a couple pins in your Mike Krzyzewski voodoo doll, go to the YouTube and re-watch the full 2015 Wisconsin-Kentucky replay a couple dozen times during your coronavirus-induced self-isolation.