March 27, 2005. The East Regional Final in Syracuse pitted a traditional power against a 6-seed with party-crashing aspirations. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Marvin Williams were never required to attend class and would all be lottery picks in the ensuing June’s NBA Draft. On the other side, Mike Wilkinson, the underdogs’ senior leader, honed his skill on a hoop nailed to his family’s barn in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. The Badgers’ 3-star wonders went toe-to-toe with the blue-chippers, holding multiple leads in the second half, but the Tar Heels’ athletic superiority proved to be far too much in the end in an 88-82 barnburner. For the longest time during the Bo Ryan era, that was the nearest the Badger program ever was to the seemingly foreign land known as the Final Four, and the ubiquitous blockade surrounding the grandest stage in collegiate basketball haunted Ryan as he attended the event each year in the audience rather than squatting on the sideline. McDonald’s All-Americans vs. high-major afterthoughts. That 2005 Elite Eight matchup epitomized the same narrative that has followed Wisconsin throughout its David vs. Goliath successes since the turn of the millennium. Said narrative still persisted as the media’s storyline when Wisconsin at last knocked down the Final Four barrier in consecutive years, playing their three games against the high school mixtape deities of Kentucky and Duke.
Wisconsin has been forever kindly described as one of college basketball’s “models of consistency.” The methodical system, the personnel fit, the four-year player development, and the March omnipresence were the major aspects of this program’s highest national compliment. With each passing season, however, the recruiting trail remained relatively constant. They developed an overlooked 3-star point guard from Bloomington, MN into a first team All-American. Josh Gasser went from his lone high-major offer being from Northwestern to Captain America. Same goes for Frank Kaminsky, and we know what happened there. The recruiting pitch was all pieced together. Second-to-none player development, a winning brand of Big Ten Basketball, and a prestigious academic institution could sell itself. Nonetheless, it was still Wisconsin, still having the same perception construed by whatever the national media had to say, and more importantly, no Final Four exposure, a recruiting pitch in and of itself. The lack of top-flight prospects even considering the Badgers was certainly partially due to the program’s targeting of what many characterize as “Wisconsin guys,” but Ryan, Greg Gard, and company had never passed up an opportunity to woo the uppermost talent, especially if in-state. The staff simply had to live with swings and misses, fully adopting the Wisconsin Basketball motto of “Next.” In 2014 and 2015, as Wisconsin twice cut down the nets in Southern California, many were apprehensive about the careers of the likes of Gasser and Kaminsky coming to a close in the Badgers’ route to becoming America’s team. The farewell was heartfelt, principally with the manner in which the ending took place, but the idea that this was only the beginning was no joke. Wisconsin basketball was just getting started. The uptick began with Sam Dekker. He committed to Wisconsin as a sophomore in high school prior to his explosion, and by the time his senior year rolled around, he’d become the highest rated recruit in Badger history. As he and an island of misfit toys captivated the nation’s hearts with flawless offense, unprecedented looseness, and pursuit of dreamy stenographers, that assemblage of Badgers made it cool to play for Wisconsin. The program has since reaped the colossal benefits, and it has two Final Fours to thank.
Presently, another iconic senior class is unquestionably primed for a third Final Four trip in four years (five for Showy), with the first title since 1941 still alluding them. With the Jon Rothstein tracker heating up, we are fully armed with the knowledge of official practice beginning in 17 days. Just ahead of the 2016-17 season, Badger fans received some exhilarating news on Monday afternoon as Wisconsin was able to keep yet another state product at home. Tyler Herro of Whitnall, sitting at #25 in ESPN’s 2018 rankings, committed to the Badgers via Twitter after being blown away on his official campus visit this past weekend. After months of speculation of Herro being lost to a school of perceived greater attractiveness, specifically after Herro stating himself that Arizona was his dream school, Wisconsin achieved yet another victory on the recruiting trail this offseason. The majority of the summer’s energy was spent on the class of 2017, whose story can be traced back to approximately a calendar year prior to now with the commitment of LaCrosse wing Kobe King. Wisconsin owns a top 5 recruiting class in 2017 (for the time being), comprised of King, point guard Brad Davison, and stretch big Nathan Reuvers. The cliché of “almost unheard of” could be applied, but this simply is quite literally unheard of. Wisconsin has attained its stretch of triumphs this millennium while amassing a grand total of one top 25 recruiting class. Landing Herro for 2018 also has auxiliary perks, as this improves Wisconsin’s chances for inking an additional in-state stud, Joey Hauser of Stevens Point. The primary competitors for Hauser will likely be Michigan State and Marquette, for whom his brother Sam will play this season as a freshman. Wisconsin stealing Hauser from the lure of playing with his brother would further cement the new level the Badger program has achieved, and would, not to mention, provide a scary 2018-19 roster. No more backup plans. Wisconsin is a destination, and frankly, it’s about damn time. What the Wisconsin program could accomplish acquiring players with a higher baseline and more tools entering school is only up to our imagination at this stage, but we will see it play out over the next, well, who knows how many, years, and we see it in action now. Nigel Hayes was poached from Ohio State. Bronson Koenig spurned North Carolina and Duke to remain home. How fitting this graduating class is the one with an opportunity for a third Final Four in four years. As this procurement of talent appears to be progressing in almost a linear fashion, we can only expect the sky is the limit. Josh Gasser has paved the way for Brad Davison. Michael Flowers has paved the way for Kobe King. Ben Brust has paved the way for Tyler Herro. Everything is cyclical. This next phase of Wisconsin basketball will transform itself from a “model of consistency” to purely great. Clearly, for this past decade plus, Madison has been basketball’s best kept secret. The irony is, however, it required two trips to the Final Four for the basketball world to realize it was even a secret, which is why a collection of young men who mere addendums in high school to the coaches and programs that Wisconsin trampled can be directly attributed to the fast-emerging epiphany. The bluebloods need to make room for one more, because Wisconsin is here, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.