One school raced out to the early lead in men’s basketball national titles, getting a seven-year head start in the NCAA tournament. When you’re talking hoops, and it’s the University of Wisconsin and Kentucky you’re comparing, the safe money would be on the Wildcats, right?
Nope. The Badgers won their first NCAA title in 1941. The players wore striped socks and extra short shorts. A crowd of 12,000 greeted them at a raucous rally when their train got back to Madison at 1:20 a.m. For seven years, Badgers fans had bragging rights over the folks down in Lexington.
Then in 1948, Kentucky got its first NCAA crown. And the parity between the two schools’ basketball fortunes ended there. The Badgers, who had made one more tourney appearance in 1947, embarked on a basketball trip through a desert of Biblical proportions, going 47 years without so much as a return trip to the NCAAs. The 1941 title remains their one and only.
The Wildcats rose to kings of the national court, adding seven more national titles, becoming the first college program to reach 1,000 and 2,000 wins and sparking a torrid love affair with fans across the state that, in its intensity and universality, might be familiar to Wisconsin fans of another sport.
“In Wisconsin, it’s all about football with the Packers,” said Beth Fuchs, a University of Kentucky librarian with Wisconsin roots. “Here, it’s Kentucky basketball.”
With no professional sports teams and an afterthought college football team, Kentucky fans devote full attention to the Wildcats on the hardwood.
The two schools, which play Saturday for a berth in the national championship game, have plenty in common. Both are flagship public universities and land-grant institutions with a research focus, although Wisconsin has a much larger student body and higher rankings in research dollars and other academic measures.
UW-Madison is just down the street from the state Capitol, whereas UK is about 30 miles of rolling bluegrass from Frankfort.
Madison is considered an oasis of progressive politics and lifestyles surrounded by reality and dairy farms. In Lexington, it’s similar politically — at least compared to the rest of Kentucky, if not Madison-style liberalism — except the farms are filled with horses, not cows. Each is situated in a college town in states outsiders tend to know by their alcohol.
“People I talked to said I’d like it in Lexington if I like bourbon, horses and tobacco,” said Sarah Moore, a UW-Madison geography professor who earned her doctorate at Kentucky. “I said, ‘Two out of three will do.’”
Kentucky has a well-earned reputation for growing tobacco, with about half the total farms in the nation.
So it’s a tad surprising that Lexington beat Madison to an indoor smoking ban, clearing the air in 2004. Madison followed in 2005. Wisconsin passed a similar ban statewide in 2010. Kentucky still doesn’t have a statewide ban.
Wisconsin, of course, brews and drinks beer. In Kentucky they’re equally avid about their bourbon. It’s said the state has more bourbon barrels than people. That makes more than 4.3 million barrels. Kentucky goes big on horse racing. Wisconsin goes wild for sausage racing.
“I would say there actually are a lot of similarities between Madison and Lexington,” Moore said. “I think they’re both very friendly campuses. Obviously it’s colder here. You get ice, not snow, in Lexington.”