Lewis: A Decade Later

Ten years after the Gophers' memorable Final Four run, UW has begun treading a similar path.

Ten years and four days ago – a little Lincoln re-write for you – the Wisconsin Badgers walked out of Williams Arena likely dejected by a 65-48 loss to the Gophers that opened the 1997 Big Ten season.

Flash-forward a decade and the roles have reversed. This time it was the Kohl Center and a 68-45 Badger thumping.

Back in '97 the University of Minnesota boasted a one-loss record entering conference play. Though ranked just No. 15 at the time, the Gophs' deep and talented roster had plenty of goals and hopes ahead of them – many of them ultimately reached.

Clem Haskins and his now infamous academic help guided Minnesota through a two-loss Big Ten season, a top seed in the NCAA tournament and a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis. On a hockey campus, suddenly the buzz was all basketball.

In all fairness, the Badger basketball program under Bo Ryan has reached a point where winning is both expected and often realized. Their consistent NCAA tournament trips give them an alternative starting point from Clem's Gophers. But less than a year after the Madison campus was bubbling over a pair of hockey titles, the Kohl Center has similarly been transfixed by Badger-ball fever.

There was the Pittsburgh game in which some wondered whether the crowd would get up and raise the intensity considering the early Saturday morning start. And two weeks later on Saturday against the Gophers, despite the game being over winter break against a sub-.500 opponent, the house was just as packed.

Having spent hours on the Internet scouring for tickets under $100 outside the student section, I can say from experience that the Wisconsin basketball program has reached a high point in hype and support. And if the Badgers were to beat Ohio State on Tuesday, it will only get crazier.

"It's kind of both," said Kammron Taylor, as to whether that growing momentum outside the locker room is either fun or more of a challenge. "It's fun, and I think it's more of a challenge than anything, because you can't get a big head because it's still early in the season."

As much as Badger fans are likely to lose little sleep over the Gophers' current woes, it's a shame to see how far they have fallen since that 1997 dream season – (referred to as the dream season due to the fact that the NCAA says it never happened.)

But Golden Goof jokes aside, the trajectory Minnesota took a decade ago is one the current Badgers would like to continue on themselves. That year Minny did everything it takes to put a team in position for a title run.

They protected their home court all season long while losing just twice in the Big Ten away from their arena. They never fell by double digits, never lost twice in a row and rarely let their newfound success catch them sleeping. In the NCAA tournament that year they survived a tough double-overtime thriller against Clemson, followed it up with an impressive victory over No. 2 seed UCLA and eventually lost to runner-up Kentucky in the semifinals.

Taylor was a 13-year-old in Minneapolis during that run, and although some of the memories have faded, he remembers enough to know that a similar path would be something for the current Badgers to shoot for.

"It would definitely be a good thing to have the type of season that they had," Taylor said. "They were a complete team. That would be pretty nice to duplicate something like that.

"But I'm pretty sure they were saying the same thing back then, that you have to take it one game at a time and hopefully everything else will fall into place."

Of course Minnesota did ultimately lose their final game that season, and certainly it is no current Badger's dream to win a lot of games just to ultimately lose to a good team in Atlanta – despite the fact that it would represent a successful season by most standards.

And here is where the border buddies differ in their potential. While Minnesota was a balanced squad led most memorably by Bobby Jackson, it was not one in which a single player could consistently take over every game he played in. The Badgers have that in player of the year candidate Alando Tucker.

Probably the only thing Tucker would want back from the team's season thus far would be his buzzer-beating 3-point attempt that rimmed out against Missouri State. Other than that it has been head-turner after head-turner for anyone watching Tucker elevate himself and his equally deep team to its highest poll position of all time – possibly No. 3 when the rankings are released Monday.

Ohio State figures to be the toughest opponent left on a Badgers schedule that will certainly never be easy. Getting a chance to jump off on the right foot on Tuesday night will put this team one step further along that ideal trajectory.

"We've only played our first [conference] game," Taylor said. "And you have to learn how to block out what people are saying about you – the good things they're saying. And just stay focused on the task at hand. Right now we're fighting for trying to win a Big Ten championship."

Let's just see if the Badgers can handle the Buckeyes. Then they'd have to learn to block out quite a bit.


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