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Badger Hoop Titles Spotlight U Failures

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March 6, 2022

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Another Big Ten Conference basketball season ends today with familiar outcomes for Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers are again men’s Big Ten champions and the Golden Gophers have yet another finish near the bottom of the conference standings.

UW has shared or won outright six league titles this millennium. UM hasn’t come close to winning the Big Ten, and in only three seasons have the Gophers posted a winning conference record.

The Badgers have won league championships in two of the last three years. Minnesota has finished 13th and 11th in the 14-team Big Ten the past two seasons, and on this final Sunday hopes to avoid a last place tie with Nebraska.

Wait. The story gets worse.

Since 2000 Wisconsin has been to three NCAA Final Fours and one national title game. The Badgers have earned their way into the NCAA Tournament every year except 2018. The Gophers have been to the Big Dance five times in 22 years, with two wins.

Only a Gopher fan with no expectations could be satisfied with the disparity between the boys from Dinkytown and Minnesota’s rivals to the East.

What UW has achieved in basketball during the last 20-plus years is more than admirable. It’s remarkable. What the coaches and administrators in charge of Gopher hoops have done is embarrassing.

Two states with such similar histories, culture, populations and demographics. We’re also talking two land grant universities with similar resources for their basketball programs—but with such dissimilar results.

The 2000 Badgers went to the school’s first Final Four in almost 60 years. UW had undergone a turnaround with Dick Bennett, a proven coach who the Badgers found in nearby Green Bay—a guy who had turned the mid-major Phoenix into a power. In 1999 the Gophers had taken the riskier path by hiring a hot name among the mid-major programs—inexperienced Dan Monson from Gonzaga.

When the U said goodbye to Monson eight seasons later, Kentucky was okay bidding farewell to Tubby Smith. Gopher fans found out what Kentuckians already knew: Smith was most successful with the storied Wildcat program in the early years, following the glory run of coach Rick Pitino. Kentucky was in decline when Smith departed from Lexington to take over the Gophers.

While the U opted for a big name in Smith, Bo Ryan was the next home run choice to lead the Badgers. His coaching background included UW-Platteville where all he did was win four Division III national championships. From 2001-2015 Ryan’s Badgers won four Big Ten titles and played in two Final Fours.

Richard Pitino

True to form, the Gophers got the wrong coach and the wrong Pitino in 2013 after Smith was fired. They signed up Rick’s son Richard, then 30 years old, and without a resume to qualify him as a head Big Ten coach.

When Ryan retired in December of 2015, the decision makers in Madison remained true to their formula of hiring home state coaches who are superb teachers, using a system that fits the personnel, and understanding their recruiting base. Greg Gard, Ryan’s assistant and a Wisconsin native, has led the Badgers to two conference titles in seven seasons and had three other teams that finished no worse than fourth in the standings.

Gard should be national coach of the year for what he and his players have accomplished this season. Nobody saw this year’s success coming. The Big Ten title was supposed to be won by Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State or Ohio State. Those programs might have more talent but the Badgers are the definition of a team.

They play together in all phases of the game and execute fundamentals like they were at a coaching clinic. There is the trademark stingy defense, including the willingness to sacrifice “life and limb” to clog driving lanes. They move the basketball on offense and have efficient shot selection. They’re physically and mentally tough, and that pays off in various ways including rebounding.

Bennett, Ryan and Gard teams have all played this way. They have built success with players willing to buy in, and many of them are Minnesotans. This year the Badgers have three starters from the Twin Cities area, center Steven Crowl, guard Brad Davison and forward Tyler Wahl. Two years ago the 2020 Big Ten champion Badgers had five Minnesotans on the roster including key contributor Nate Reuvers from Lakeville North.

The parade to Madison started years ago and has turned out successfully for many Gopher state players including guard Jordan Taylor and forward Jon Leuer who were stars on Wisconsin NCAA Tournament teams. Truth is while the Gophers wanted some players who made the Badgers a Big Ten power, often the home boys were shown minimal interest. While the U was landing an Isaiah Washington, UW was signing up a Brad Davison.

Badger players know they will be taught how to play the game and how to win. Their teammates are mostly from Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, with maybe a player or two from places like Ohio or South Dakota. Not a roster with glitzy prep recruits, but team oriented guys with more focus on winning the Big Ten than having a pro career. Despite all their Big Ten and national success, the Badgers haven’t had an NBA draft choice since 2015.

Maybe Ben Johnson, finishing up his fist season as Minnesota’s head coach, will row the program in a different direction. Finally the U has a Gopher alum and native son leading the program. Already he has shown a commitment to Minnesota prep players in his recruiting. The Big Ten record this winter of 4-11 heading into tonight’s final regular season game at Northwestern is dismal but the coaching and effort by the players has kept Minnesota competitive in many games.

But the future is speculation. As of today, the results of this millennium speak loudly in Madison and Minneapolis.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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