Editor’s note: Regular Sports Nut columnist Howie Magner is on assignment (seeking a stick low enough to be a worthy limbo challenge), so Milwaukee Magazine interns Logan Macomber and James Carlton will serve as temporary guest writers.
The Golden Eagles have made the NCAA Tournament in the first four years of coach Buzz Williams' tenure.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Often, especially when describing the attitude of his team’s relentless defense, Buzz Williams will talk about the importance of not getting complacent, of keeping the pressure on and never being satisfied.
“The hungriest dog eats first,” Marquette’s inexhaustible men’s basketball coach is fond of saying in that deep Texas twang of his.
It’s become the calling card of the Golden Eagles in Williams’ five seasons at the helm, the first four of which earned trips to the NCAA Tournament. They may not always be the most talented and it may not always be pretty, but generally, they work harder and more fervidly than their opponents, even if sometimes the result is an overzealous pass thrown wildly out of bounds.
A similar mindset, but with different methods, has been taken 80 miles to the west in Madison, where coach Bo Ryan uses his deathly boring but undeniably effective style of play to do more with less. Though the sheer athleticism of his mostly Midwestern recruits is often questioned and occasionally impugned, the players fit the system and the team wins.
The Badgers made the Big Dance in each of Ryan’s first 11 seasons and, just like the Golden Eagles, will be invited again this year when the brackets are announced on March 17.
For more than a decade, the state’s two premier college basketball programs have enjoyed a run of sustained success almost unrivaled anywhere else in the country, save for a few pockets of perennial powers. Since 2000, when Wisconsin reached the Final Four, there have been only four seasons in which both schools didn’t make the tournament, all by Marquette, before and just after their Dwyane Wade-led Final Four appearance in 2003.
That level of dependable excellence has continued this year, with both schools likely to receive high Tournament seeds and both ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. Remarkably, Wisconsin is one of just four states with two nationally ranked teams this season.
Until Thursday night’s 58-43 beatdown at the hands of Michigan State, Wisconsin was still in contention for the Big Ten regular-season title. Marquette can win a share of the Big East championship with a victory Saturday against St. John’s.
This is a state not notably rich in local basketball talent – though top high schoolers like Dominican’s Duane Wilson (committed to Marquette), Luke Fischer (headed to Indiana) and Matt Thomas (Iowa State-bound) will challenge that assertion at this weekend’s State Tournament in Madison – so it’s remarkable to be in company with such traditionally hoops-mad kingdoms as Michigan, North Carolina and Kentucky.
And this was supposed to be a down year for two schools that got pounded early in the season, wobbled their way through December, toed the waters of the AP Top 25 for weeks and only in the past month have really dived into the conversation of the best teams in the country.
But for all those 20-win seasons and NCAA appearances, only once in the past 12 years has either team advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen (Wisconsin’s 2005 run to the Elite Eight). Both schools are an annual lock to make the tournament and a good bet to win a game or even get past the first weekend. But that’s usually it. Neither has been able to take the next step – whether due to player limitations, coaching errors or plain old bad luck – to really become a college basketball powerhouse and national championship contender.
For Ryan, the problem, critics say, is the Badgers just aren’t athletic enough to challenge the physically gifted players from Michigan State, Indiana and the like. For Williams, it’s that his teams are erratic and tend to shrink in big games, unable to reliably rise to the occasion of beating the Georgetowns, the Louisvilles.
Ryan recruits skilled players to fit his methodical system, and the system allows Wisconsin to be consistently good but rarely great. The vigorous Williams recruits players that are talented and frenetic, which often leads to stirring victories in the regular season but usually ends with sloppy defeats in the tournament.
Despite the two teams’ accomplishments over the past decade-plus, some fans in the state are getting exasperated with the predictably admirable but anticlimactic outcomes. Ryan’s heard the complaints for years, but at 65, he likely isn’t going anywhere. Williams, a 40-year-old hot coaching commodity, is always in the eye of a speculative storm when high-profile jobs come available.
It’s hard to imagine this unique run of dual-program success continuing for another decade. Then again, 15 years ago, it would’ve been near-impossible to imagine the Dairy State with two of the nation’s best college basketball teams.
In two weeks, both schools will have a chance to quiet their critics. Both have reached the Sweet Sixteen each of the past two years and, in a season neither was supposed to be this good, maybe this is the one that turns out great.
The hungriest dog eats first.