A Carolina Blue Opportunity

Wisconsin basketball has come a long way in the 11 years with Bo Ryan as the head coach. How far? When the ninth-ranked Badgers take on No.5 North Carolina in the Dean Dome for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, few people a decade ago could ever see that happening.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - It's an awe-inspiring sight for the unprepared.

Walk into the Dean Dome, stand at center court, look up and spin around slowly. It revels one of the most storied programs in college sports. The rafters filled with banners of All-Americans, retired numbers, conference titles and national titles.

It's makes members of No.9 Wisconsin appreciate how far they have come and the tradition they are assembling under Coach Bo Ryan, a nod that was given to them when the schedule makers of the Big Ten-ACC Challenged pegged them to play the marquee game on day two of the event against No.5 North Carolina.

"It's a tribute to the players that have come here before and where they have set the bar for this program," UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. "It's a great measuring stick, a great test early to see where we are at and I am sure there will be positive and negative things that will come out of it regardless of the result.

"It's one game against a really good team that has historically a lot of tradition. From that point, it's a sign of respect that people nationally recognize where this program is and we've been able to sustain it."

Before Ryan took over the program, Wisconsin had won 20 games twice in 30 years and never was in position to compete with a North Carolina, a Duke or any other quality ACC program. The only two moments of glory was winning the 1941 national championship and making the 2000 Final Four.

Now for the third time in five seasons, Wisconsin – which has won 20 games in eight of the last nine seasons - is matched against one of the who's who in college basketball in the challenge and has a 73-69 victory over Duke in 2009 under its belts.

"You ask your parents, grandparents, if they would have ever dreamed that that would be the case at Wisconsin," said Ryan. "It makes a statement for our program."

That victory over Duke is part of an impressive six-game winning streak against ACC opponents, one coming on the road and three on neutral court, including a victory over No.16 Florida State in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Only Duke was ranked in the top 10 at the time (No.6), but it's a sign that UW is taking steps towards being considered among the nation's elite programs.

"In this day and age - the same thing in football - you've got to win a national championship," said Ryan. "Whatever people think, it could change in a week, it could change in a year. I know one thing, there's enough people who appreciate how our players play, and what they bring to the table night in and night out."

Added junior Jared Berggren: "It's always fun when you get to go to one of the top-tier programs in the country. It's a chance to show something different and show you can compete. We know we can compete. We've done it before. We played with Duke. We played with Ohio State. It would be nice to go and get a win like that on the road. It'll definitely be a fun challenge and one we're looking forward to."

What Wisconsin has brought to the court this season is defense and accuracy. The Badgers are limiting foes to an NCAA-best 39.2 points per game and lead the nation in field goal percentage defense (30.5). Only BYU has show over 35 percent and scored over 43 points during UW's 6-0 start.

Granted the competition isn't a North Carolina skill level, but these are still Division 1 teams with scholarship athletes, and they have little to do with Wisconsin's perimeter shooting. Shooing a Big Ten-best 48 percent from 3-point range, UW is averaging 11.8 3-pointers per game and has had 9 different players make a 3-pointer this season.

They are statistics and performances that have given UW confidence through the first month of the season; results that have added to the hype around the challenge at hand.

"There's a lot of hype around the Big Ten-ACC Challenge," Berggren said. "It's a fun event and we're glad we can be a part of it. We're fortunate to be able to bring some wins home the last couple years. Obviously the matchup on one of the biggest stages of college basketball, we're excited for the opportunity."

"Every year we've always been confident and expect to win. We've taken bumps before, and somewhere along the line we're probably going to take a bump, but we're going to try to keep it rolling as long as possible."

Looking up at the banners yesterday and today, don't expect that confidence to waver.

"‘We're going to go in there expecting to win," sophomore Josh Gasser said, "and I think that's going to happen."


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