Wisconsin has owned Illinois this decade, but Badgers basketball might be changing
January 25, 2016
I don’t blame you if you don’t. It’s been a while.
Much like the Packers have owned the Bears in the Jay Cutler era, our neighbors to the north have been ruthless to the Illini in their college basketball dominance this decade. Since the 2010-11 season, Illinois is 1-8 against the Badgers, and it hasn’t beaten them since Jan. 2, 2011.
Head coach John Groce has particularly struggled against Wisconsin in his three-plus seasons at Illinois, going 0-5 and losing by an average of 17 points per contest. Some of that lack of success has aligned with two of the best teams in Wisconsin history that went to back-to-back Final Fours in 2014 and 2015, but Illinois’ utter lack of competitiveness has still been troubling.
Nicknamed “The Wisconsin Buzzcuts” with prodding affection by former Ohio State walk-on-turned-author Mark Titus for their frustrating ability to consistently churn out disciplined, homogenous and ultimately overachieving rosters, Wisconsin has been a template for building a successful college basketball program for almost two decades.
Former head coach Bo Ryan would surround one or two stars with role players who would perfectly execute his system, and the Badgers would grind you into submission with their slow-it-down style of play. The result was 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances under Ryan before he retired in the middle of this current season.
It’s always been fun to make fun of Wisconsin’s revolving door of goofy and unathletic-looking players (remember Mike Bruesewitz?) when you aren’t playing them, but it’s a lot less enjoyable when they’re constantly beating you backdoor for layups and reversing the rock for the sixth time for a wide-open three.
Knowing they would rarely be a destination for five-star recruits, Wisconsin built a program the unglamorous but effective way by developing underrated and overlooked players for four years. And they got the job done.
If Groce is going to break his streak of futility against the Badgers, this is the perfect time to do it. Wisconsin is hovering around .500 under interim head coach and long-time Ryan understudy Greg Gard and will probably miss the NCAAs for the first time since 1998.
The only remaining major contributors from last season’s team that reached the national title game are Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, and they haven’t been enough to lift Wisonsin past mediocrity so far. Frank The Tank and Sam Dekker seem like a distant memory.
Will the back-to-back Final Fours be the peak of Wisconsin basketball that people look back on years from now? They were everything Ryan had been building toward, enduring all those first and second-round NCAA exits for a shot or two at the ultimate prize. Now that the program has fallen back to earth, you have to wonder if Wisconsin hoops will ever be the same without Ryan.
Handing the team to Gard mid-season was a power play by Ryan to ensure his right-hand man gets a shot at removing the interim tag, but what if the Badgers go a different direction after the season? Maybe a new coach will use the built-up Wisconsin brand to recruit a different type of player to play under a different type of system.
An alternative direction for Badgers basketball might not be the worst thing from an Illini fan’s perspective.
They’ve worn Illinois out with the old formula for long enough.
Alex is a senior in AHS