Those days have been relegated to program history, footnotes in UW's rise to becoming a perennial Big Ten power. The Badgers went back to the tournament for a fourth time in 1997, and will play an NCAA first round game for the seventh consecutive season and 11th time overall when they tip off with 11th-seeded Northern Iowa at the Ford Center here at 6:20 p.m. Friday.
Five seniors will take the court for UW Friday evening, but only two will be playing in their fourth NCAA event. Forward Mike Wilkinson and guard Clayton Hanson have been with coach Bo Ryan every step of the way in his four years on campus. Forward Andreas Helmigk has also been a part of all four Ryan teams, but he was sidelined his freshman year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
In addition to four NCAA Tournament berths, that group has been in Madison for two regular season Big Ten championships, a Big Ten Tournament championship and the team's recent runner-up finish at the Big Ten Tournament.
Said Ryan: "That they are in the NCAA Tournament I think was a heck of an accomplishment for this group; the fact that every year that they've been here they've been to the NCAA Tournament and played in a championship game."
Wilkinson and Hanson, starters for every game this season, are not thinking about legacy building. There is too much basketball they still want to play. Years from now, however, this era in UW basketball will likely be looked upon as the second dawn of a proud program. Wilkinson remembers what got the ball rolling for the team's current success. He arrived in Madison and redshirted a year after the team's run to the 2000 Final Four.
"The guys that were here when I got here had a lot of pride in this program," Wilkinson said. "Even before coach (Ryan) got here. There was a lot of pride in playing well, playing hard, being smart, coming every day to work whether it be playing a team with a bad record or a good record. It didn't matter, you just show up every day and work, whether you get on the floor or not."
That is Wisconsin basketball.
Dick Bennett sowed the seeds planted by Stu Jackson and Stan Van Gundy in the mid-1990s and built a team capable of winning at the highest level of college basketball.
In the 1998-99 season, the first full season UW called the Kohl Center home, and five years after Finley and Webster were patrolling the Field House, the Bennett-coached Badgers made the NCAAs as a five seed, only to get embarrassed in the first round, a 43-32 loss to Southwest Missouri State.
A year later, UW crawled into the show as an eight seed and slowly but surely shocked the college basketball viewing nation, reaching the Final Four.
"It really started with [the 2000 team]," Wilkinson said. "We've kind of carried it over year after year."
The Badgers are making their second consecutive appearance as a six seed, having advanced to the second round last year. They were also a six seed in Wilkinson's redshirt year, when they lost in the first round. UW made it to the second round as an eight seed in 2002 — Wilkinson's and Hanson's freshman season. That duo enjoyed their greatest tournament success in 2003, when the Badgers made it to the Sweet Sixteen as a five seed.
"You just try to absorb when you are younger and new to things," Hanson said. "You just try to absorb as much as you can and take it all in. That's what I tried to do. Here we are again preparing for it. We're looking forward to it."
Regardless of what happens this weekend, this senior class, in particular Wilkinson and Hanson, have continued to build a foundation that is poised to last into the foreseeable future. The Badgers had the best recruiting class in the Big Ten this past November and should make an eighth consecutive trip to the dance next year.
As for this season, it may go down as the most memorable of Ryan's four Badger teams thus far. This is not the best UW team of the past four seasons — that honor would go to 2003 or 2004 — but this team has overcome so much, from injuries to key players to Devin Harris' early departure for the NBA to Boo Wade's early departure due to personal reasons, that it may be the most accomplished.
"We haven't looked back, we're still looking forward," Wilkinson said. "There's a lot of basketball to be played…I haven't thought of this any different than any other year.
"We've done a lot of good things this year but… We still have stuff that we want to accomplish."
With Friday's tussle against Northern Iowa, Wilkinson, Hanson and the rest of the Badgers' seniors will embark on their last NCAA Tournament journey.
"Really, you don't think too much to that now because I don't want to think about the end," Hanson said. "[I] just want to keep playing as long as I can."
What: Wisconsin (22-8 overall, 11-5 Big Ten) vs. Northern Iowa (21-10 overall, 11-7 Missouri Valley Conference) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
When: Friday, March 18 at 6:20 p.m.
Where: The Ford Center (18,544) in Oklahoma City.
Broadcasts: The game will be televised live by CBS. The 46-city Wisconsin Radio Network will provide a live radio broadcast. WIBA-AM 1310 and WIBA FM 101.5 will carry the game in Madison.
Series notes: Wisconsin is 3-1 all-time versus Northern Iowa, having last played the Panthers in 1987.