In what has become a tradition, University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan sat in the Kohl Center media room Sunday evening and talked about another trip to the NCAA tournament for the Badgers.
There were times this season when a 14th consecutive invitation, tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the country, was far from a sure thing.
Ryan admitted as much during a candid interview with reporters shortly after it was announced that the Badgers (24-9) had earned a No. 4 seed in the East Regional and will open against 13th-seeded Montana (25-6) at 1:10 p.m. Central time on Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M. TNT will broadcast the game.
“We’re proud to be in this thing; we’re proud to represent Wisconsin and the Big Ten,” Ryan said. “I’m so happy for our guys, because this is a gritty group.
“I didn’t know we’d be sitting here; wasn’t quite sure at times. And there’s not a person in this room that can’t agree with what I just said, those that have watched. So let’s see if we can’t keep it going.”
It’s an intriguing opening venue for the Badgers — The Pit in Albuquerque is where UW beat LSU and Purdue to advance to the 2000 Final Four — and the opening opponent comes with a great storyline.
Grizzlies coach Wayne Tinkle was born in Milwaukee and one of his assistants is Freddie Owens, a Milwaukee native and former UW athlete who played his last three seasons with the Badgers under Ryan.
Two moments in Owens’ career stand out above the others:
The basket he scored on a runner with 25 seconds remaining to help the Badgers beat Michigan State 64‑63 on Jan. 12, 2002, ending the Spartans’ Big Ten record 53‑game home winning streak.
And his 3-pointer with 1 second remaining that gave UW a 61-60 win over Tulsa in an NCAA tournament second-round game in Spokane, Wash., on March 22, 2003. The victory sent the Badgers to their first of four trips to the Sweet 16 under Ryan.
Owens applied for an assistant coach opening at UW after Howard Moore was hired as the head coach at Illinois-Chicago following the 2009-10 season. Ryan thought Owens needed more seasoning and hired Lamont Paris instead.
“I had a weird feeling all day that we would be playing Wisconsin if we could get that No. 13 seed,” Owens said, according to a press release issued by the Montana sports information department. “It’s going to be a fun game. I’m on the other side of the court now, so we’re going to be putting our guys in the best position we can to get a win.”
Ryan knows a lot about Owens, but he was short on details about the Grizzlies. Montana, the regular-season and tournament champion of the Big Sky Conference, has won 14 consecutive games since an 80-64 loss at Weber State on Jan. 14.
Right after the matchup was announced, UW associate head coach Greg Gard immediately began working on the scouting report on Montana, which defeated Weber State in the Big Sky championship game. Watch video highlights here.
“Gardo’s 9-1, and he’ll have all those answers for me later,” said Ryan, referring to UW’s record in its first 10 NCAA tournament openers since he took over the program prior to the 2001-02 season. “And I’m hoping he’s 10-1.”
The winner of that matchup will play against Saturday against either fifth-seeded Vanderbilt, the SEC tournament champion who upended No. 1 overall seed Kentucky on Sunday, or 12th-seeded Harvard. If the seeds hold, UW would face the East's No. 1 seed, Syracuse, in the Sweet 16 in Boston. Ohio State is the No. 2 seed on the other side of the bracket.
That UW would be receiving an invite to the NCAA tournament for the 14th consecutive year — only Kansas (23), Duke (17) and Michigan State (15) have longer active streaks — hasn’t been in doubt for several weeks now.
But there was a time when the streak was in jeopardy.
The low point came in early January, when UW was 12-5 overall and 1-3 in Big Ten play after consecutive losses to Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan. Making matters worse, the first two losses during that skid came at the Kohl Center.
But the Badgers followed a 59‑41 defeat at Michigan on Jan. 8 with a 67-62 victory at Purdue four days later. Mackey Arena, where UW had won just one time in its previous 35 games, was where Ryan became a believer.
As the team made its way back to Madison that night on a bus in brutal conditions that included snow, wind and ice, Ryan was convinced he was making that trek with a team that had what it took to get back to the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve got something here,” Ryan remembers thinking to himself. “We can turn this into something.”
The Badgers proved him right by going 12-4 after their three-game losing streak early in Big Ten play.
This is one of Ryan’s least talented teams since he arrived at UW — senior point guard Jordan Taylor is the only star and began the season surrounded by an inexperienced frontcourt — but the Badgers have made up for it with sheer determination.
UW is the No. 14 overall seed after finishing in fourth place in the Big Ten Conference and is plenty battle-tested as it heads to Albuquerque. Highlighting the Badgers’ resume is a 10-5 record away from the Kohl Center and a 7-7 mark in 14 games against 10 opponents that are in the NCAA tournament.
“Look at our strength of schedule; look at what we’ve done away from home,” Ryan said. “This team definitely earned that seed. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”