The final frontier.
This is the voyage of the star-filled ship Ryanprise.
It's one year mission? To explore a strangely great new world. To seek out new teams and new accomplishments. To boldly go where no Wisconsin team has gone before. (cue the theme from Star Trek)
Well, Badger fans, Captain William "Bo" Ryan and his crew have accomplished just that.
As of February 19th, 2007, the University of Wisconsin men's basketball program can now say they have reached the pinnacle of the rankings. The Badgers were voted as the top team in the land by the Associated Press.
In a nice twist, the Badgers moved from being ranked third last week to number one this week. Florida, the previous top team, lost to Vanderbilt 83-70 on Saturday. That loss snapped a 17-game win streak and also bumped the Gators from the top spot for just the second time all season.
Wisconsin collected 35 of the 72 first place votes and a total 1,747. Ohio State, whom the Badgers will face Sunday in Columbus, received 31 first place votes and 1,728 points.
The Buckeyes did receive the top ranking in the ESPN poll.
And what was the reaction of Captain Ryan to being told his team was at the top of the basketball rankings galaxy?
"My kids have this 'number 1' red, foam rubber thing." Ryan states. "Also, there is this party favor from New Year's Eve - those things you blow on and it rolls out. I then tore up some newspaper and threw it in the air and ran around with the number one sign."
But, work and humility usually get in the way of celebration.
"Well, then I went back to my office and popped in the Michigan State team go up 30 points on Iowa." he said. "So, I went to the closet put that thing (foam rubber finger) away, put the party favor away, cleaned up the paper, and went back to work."
You cannot fault the guy for wanting to celebrate, though. In the modern era of rankings, this is, after all, the first time the Badgers have ever laid claim to the top spot. It is like a dream come true for most Badger fans. Much like Coach Ryan's celebration was a dream as well.
"When I heard that from Brian (Lucas)," Ryan says. "That is what was going on in my mind (the celebration). It was fun while it lasted."
A lot of things go into having fun on the basketball court. When you are losing, of course, fun is usually not the word that comes into your mind. Frustration trumps fun. But, when you are winning a school record 26 games, you can come up with a lot of different reasons why the game is fun and why you are accomplishing greatness.
"You don't get this without hard work." Captain Ryan said. "I am proud of the kids, proud of the players and what they have done. The perserverance they have shown this year."
The work does not stop there, of course.
Tonight, the Badgers face the aforementioned Spartan squad in East Lansing. This MSU team is a different squad than what Coach Ryan and his staff watched on film early in the season. And you just do not go into the Breslin Center and hope your credentials do the work for you.
"Michigan State has played well recently because they are healthy and have some confidence back." Ryan proclaims. "You have to be competitive in the Big Ten and do as well as you can. That is my drive all the time."
The Spartans have been playing a little bit better of late, even if they are just 13 days removed from a 62-38 smacking at Mackey Arena by Purdue. They have defeated in-state rival Michigan by 15, and then put an absolute offensive-defensive clinic on in beating a red-hot Iowa team 81-49 on Saturday.
Wisconsin has lost in its' last two trips to the Breslin Center, 77-64 and 74-65. However, the Badgers have been quite successful against Tom Izzo's bunch in recent history. Since 2002, the teams have faced off nine times. The Badgers have been on the winning end of things in 7 of the battles.
Coach Izzo understands the meaning of this game.
"I said at the beginning of the year that I thought Wisconsin was the best team in this league. I still feel that way." Izzo says. "They have rebounders, they have shooters, they have good post play, and they have arguably the best player in the country on their team. I look for them to make a deep run in the tournament, and, hopefully, get to the Final Four."
Wow, having said all of that you would think that they may as well not even play the game. But, Coach Izzo feels there are some things the Spartans can do to neutralize Wisconsin. And having a healthy squad is the first step.
"Having Raymar (Morgan) back and comfortable helps." Izzo says. "He is shooting it better and playing some good defense. Having our other guards getting better and stronger will help, too. Goran Suton is playing stronger as well. So all of those things combined, plus getting some home games, lead to us playing better."
Morgan, who ranks fifth amongst Big Ten freshman in scoring at 11.1 per game, is also a strong rebounder and on the ball defender. He is pulling down a little over five boards a game as well. Against the Hawkeyes, he recorded four steals and the Spartans had a season-high 11 thefts. But, Drew Neitzel is what makes that team tick.
Nitro, as he is referred to by his team, is in the top five in the conference for scoring, assists, free throw percentage, three point field goal percentage, and three point field goals made and attempted. He is averaging 18 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3.5 triples made, and 1 every time he hits the hardwood.
Drew is also leading the Big Ten in free throw percentage at .904. That places him in the top tean nationally as well. So he is a tough nut to crack. Just ask Captain Ryan.
"He is a very good guard." Ryan says. "He makes his free throws, he runs the show. He can shoot the three. He is showing improvement in every aspect of the game. So he has got to be a joy to coach. And anytime you are around that, you know you always have a chance."
But, in the end, does the ranking show that the Badgers have finally earned respect from people around the country? And, in turn, will that make them even bigger targets when they come to an arena near you? Ryan sure thinks so.
"Of course." Ryan said. "For people from all over the country to recognize this is pretty cool. You think that people got ready for you when you were number 2, 3, 4? Ha. Now watch when you hit these other towns."
In the end, though, no matter what happens tonight or Sunday or in March, the Badgers will never have another season like this one.
And just like James T. Kirk said in the episode entitled Whom Gods Destroy, this season seems "to be a dream that has become a reality and spread throughout the stars."
Let's just hope that, for at least tonight, the stars shine upon East Lansing, Michigan.
SIMPLY THE BEST
Not since the 1998-1999 athletic season has Wisconsin matched or topped its school record for victories in football and men's basketball.
In 1999, Barry Alvarez led the school to a record 11 wins. Coach Dick Bennett would later guide the basketball team to 22 wins. When you add them together, that is 33.
So far, with Coach Bret Bielema's squad grabbing 12 victories on the gridiron and the basketball team being 26-2, the two teams have totalled 38. Which, by the way, leads the nation in that total. Florida has 37 (13 in football), OSU has 36.
Not bad for a school who rarely gets the national respect it deserves.