The hope that radiated from the program, however, dimmed as a seemingly insurmountable set of circumstances challenged the Badgers' rise to prominence.
Rather than crow for happier days, UW hunkered down and blossomed anyway, winning a school record 25 games for the second consecutive season and advancing to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in school history.
"The guys never gave up," senior forward Mike Wilkinson said, soon after the sixth-seeded Badgers' 88-82 loss to top-seeded North Carolina in the Syracuse Regional final at the Carrier Dome here Sunday. "From the start of the year to the finish. They came and continued to work and continued to improve and it really shows with how we were playing at the end of the year. It is just a tribute to how much these guys just love playing and love being a part of this team."
A year ago this is exactly where Wisconsin was supposed to be: playing in the Elite Eight, legitimately contending for a run at Final Four nirvana and a national championship. But few, if anyone, save for the Badgers themselves, thought it possible after potholes formed on the road to basketball bliss.
Player departures, injury, illness and denigration could not keep this team from flourishing. These Badgers were heavy on leadership, toughness, tenacity and intelligence, a potent combination when mixed with underrated talent and the will to devote themselves to the strictures of Bo Ryan's system, and each other.
"The main thing is, we played for what's on the front of our jerseys," sophomore forward Alando Tucker said. "We did that all year… That's what made this such a great season. We just play for Wisconsin."
In May 2004, the Badgers had just finished one of the most successful seasons in their history, finishing tied for second in the Big Ten and winning the Big Ten Tournament.
A second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament was a mild disappointment, but UW was moving forward with three returning starters, including reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Devin Harris, and talents like Tucker and Sharif Chambliss were set to join the festivities.
But by June, Harris was gone, declaring his intentions to forego his senior year in favor of the NBA.
In October, starting guard Boo Wade, who was expected to slide into Harris' point guard spot, left the team for personal reasons. After a brief return, he left the team for good in January.
Wisconsin was down to one returning starter, senior forward Mike Wilkinson.
Expectations slipped, but the Badgers were still picked to finish third in the Big Ten, which proved prophetic. UW finished the regular season 11-5 in the Big Ten, 20-7 overall, but that success belies the additional struggles UW experienced along the way.
Wilkinson, the Badgers' man of steel, enjoyed the best season of his career, averaging 14.3 points and 7.4 rebounds overall; 16.3 and 7.9 in Big Ten games. The consensus first-team all-conference selection, though, was one of many players who battled injuries during the season.
Tucker, who led the team in scoring (15.2) and was second in rebounding (6.1), fought fatigue early in the season as he continued to rehab from the foot injuries that forced him to take a medical redshirt last year. He missed three games with another foot injury this season, and did not say he was completely healthy physically until recently.
Chambliss, who was Penn State's leading scorer his sophomore and junior seasons, played this entire season despite still feeling the effects of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in March 2004. With Harris and Wade gone, Chambliss played out of position at the point and had the sixth best single-season assist-to-turnover ratio in school history (2.32).
Promising young forwards Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma and Jason Chappell all had their development impeded by injury. Just as Butch looked to be getting back in a groove, he came down with mononucleosis.
"As soon as people get a little adversity they always want to use it as a crutch," Ryan said prior to the Big Ten Tournament. "We don't do that here. We're not going to do it."
As their coach insisted, the Badgers never felt sorry for themselves. Not when their backcourt suffered a month-long shooting slump, or when Tucker's or Wilkinson's inside presence was limited. And particularly not when they entered the NCAA Tournament and promptly heard catcalls from the national media, predicting their quick and early demise.
UW won 8 of its last 10 games in finishing 25-9.
"I'm pretty sure nobody in here thought we were going to get 25 wins except for us," Kammron Taylor said.
There will be doubts next season as well for a team that will again replace four starters. Tucker should star and true freshman Michael Flowers could prove to be a good backcourt buddy for Taylor. UW will need to find answers in the front court from some combination of senior-to-be Ray Nixon, Butch, Chappell and Stiemsma, and will have to find some 3-point shooting to replace senior guard Clayton Hanson, forward Zach Morley and Chambliss.
"There is so many great guys coming back here, guys coming in and coach Ryan's always going to have them prepared to play every game," Morley said.