Success can be numbing. When a team or program is so good for so long, fans set new expectations, and it happens quickly. The first 50-degree day of the spring is a welcome heat wave and cause for celebration. The fifth one evokes impatience over the warm weather's seemingly tardy arrival. I remember my first paycheck from my first real job and believing I was rich. By the end of that year, I felt poor.
Sometimes I wonder about programs like Wisconsin...well I would, if there were any other programs "like Wisconsin." Unlike the true blue bloods of Kansas and Kentucky and the like, Wisconsin was not borne into college basketball royalty. Before Dick Bennett and a couple of short stints by coaches that later ended up in the NBA, Steve Yoder won 28 percent of his conference games. That's not the crazy part—the crazy part is that he was able to last 10 years. Yoder never achieved a .500 season in the Big Ten, and that was mostly OK. I mean, the guy that came before him (Bill Cofield) was there for 6 seasons, and won just 30 percent of his conference games. Before him was John Powless, who went 42-78 (35 percent). Before that, John Erickson won a scintillating 41 percent. And before that was Harold Foster, who did not have an overall great record (44 percent), but he did win a couple of Big Ten championships, and even one national championship.
But he also got the job when FDR was President. A first term President.
All of this is to say that Wisconsin being a good basketball program is, historically, very recent news. Bennett (who also had a losing record in conference play, it should be noted) laid the foundation, and soon thereafter a guy named Bo got the job and proceeded to win over 70 percent of his conference games. This was a "cats chasing dogs" sequence of events, with Wisconsin becoming arguably the premier program in the conference (Michigan State being the only real competitor over that span). And it came from virtually nothing. The next time there's a claim that collecting the most shiny pieces on the top-100 recruit rankings is the only thing that matters, start the rebuttal with "But Wisconsin." Yes, recruiting is important, and yes, Wisconsin has had its share of elite recruits (Brian Butch, Sam Dekker), there is no argument (which does not invoke Pepe Silvia) that what happened in Madison from 2001 to 2015 would have likely happened with any other coach squatting on the sidelines. But Wisconsin.
Coaching matters, and as it turns out, it can matter a great deal. We may see how much it matters as soon as this season. The Badgers have exactly two top-100 (RSCI) players on the roster—redshirt sophomore Brevin Pritzl (#77) and freshman Nate Reuvers (#68). The latter has yet to play through five games, including two blowouts, and I would guess he's also headed for a redshirt season.
So Wisconsin might just have one top-100 player at its disposal this season. You know who else in the Big Ten has one? Rutgers. OK, who else? Northwestern. Who else?
Rutgers is bad, Northwestern is theoretically good and very experienced. Wisconsin is not very experienced (for the first time under Greg Gard), and I don't remember the last time the team was bad. I've gone on record that the good times finally come to an end this season. Believing the alternative is to believe either that coaching doesn't really matter despite those 15 seasons to the contrary, or that Wisconsin just happened to have two of the smartest basketball minds in the world sitting on the same bench. Unlikely things do happen, but I'm playing the odds. I'm ripping the "WISCONSIN" word right off the jerseys and imagining what the team would play like with the same roster with the word "MINNESOTA" on it instead. Truth is, it would be a straight shot to the NIT.
I may be wrong, of course. The computers think I'm wrong right now, I'll admit, but the computers don't have all of the context, either. I've always been the first in line to "hey, get a load of this guy" when I've seen bold predictions of Wisconsin missing the Tournament. But that was different, that was with Bo. He earned every one of those eyerolls. If Gard makes it this season, I'll go right back to defending that wall.
But if it doesn't, if Andy Van Vliet is not a taller Keaton Nankivil, if D'Mitrik Trice does not make a Jordan Taylor-esque sophomore leap, if Brad Davison does not pick right up where Bronson Koenig left off, then I hope that Badger fans' disappointment is outweighed by the celebration of the outrageous about-face the program underwent from the late 90s to now. I hope the success has not made them numb.