It may be hard to remember now, but the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team has not always been a national power. In fact, after winning the school’s only title in 1941, the program slid into four decades of obscurity and irrelevance. Coaches Steve Yoder and Stu Jackson helped to revive the program in the 1980s and early 1990s before Dick Bennett shocked the basketball world with a trip to the Final Four in 2000.
Since Bo Ryan took over as head coach, the Badgers have gone to a stunning 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. That streak is tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the country, putting Wisconsin at the same level as traditional powers such as Kansas and Duke. Under Bo Ryan, Wisconsin has the best record in the Big Ten: 11 games better than second-place Michigan. And his .717 winning percentage in conference play is the best in Big Ten history, beating out former Indiana coach Bob Knight.
Though the team has been the model of consistency for more than a decade, it is useful to look back and see where the program has been and how far it’s come. Here is our list of the most successful men’s basketball teams in the history of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Watch the video and read our short team bios below. Don’t agree with our rankings? Tell us about it in the comments or on Facebook.
2012 Sweet 16
The Badgers entered the NCAA Tournament as a number 4 seed and muscled their way to a second straight trip to the Sweet 16. Wisconsin lost to number 1 seed Syracuse 64–63, despite hitting 14 three-pointers during the game.
2004–05 Elite 8
Wisconsin finished the 2004–05 season third in the Big Ten, but it lost to number 1 seed Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament championship. In the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin defeated Bucknell and North Carolina State on the way to the Elite 8 before losing to number 1 seed and eventual national champion North Carolina.
1999–2000 Final Four
The 1999–2000 Wisconsin Badgers did not look like one of the best teams in school history during the regular season. But under head coach Dick Bennett, the team ran through the NCAA Tournament with a methodical, defensive style of basketball that got the team all the way to the Final Four. However, Big Ten compatriot Michigan State took down the Badgers 41–53 on its way to winning the national title.
2013–14 Final Four
The 2013–14 team showed flashes of greatness during the regular season, winning 16 straight games during Big Ten play. The team hit a skid, losing four of its next five games, but won all but one of its final games heading into the Big Ten Tournament. In the NCAA Tournament, head coach Bo Ryan’s team earned a number 2 seed, beating Oregon and Baylor to win a shot at the number 1 seed Arizona Wildcats. The Badgers beat Arizona 64–63 in overtime to get to the Final Four against Kentucky. The Badgers lost the game on a heart-breaking, last-second, three-point shot by Aaron Harrison.
1941 National Champions
In 1941, Coach Bud Foster led the Badgers to their only NCAA Championship (so far). The 1941 team won the Big Ten Championship to earn the school’s first invitation to the tournament, then in its third year. Led by John Kotz, the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, and All-American Gene Englund, the Badgers rolled to a 39–34 win in the title game over Washington State. The Badgers won one more Big Ten Championship in 1947 and were invited back to the tournament for the second time. Sadly, that would be the Badgers’ last postseason appearance until the 1989 team played in the NIT Tournament.
The 1911–12 team and the 1913–14 team were both undefeated, at 15–0. The first of those teams carried its winning streak to 29 games by winning the first 14 games of 1912–13. (It went 14–1 total.) The 1914–15 team won its first nine games. This means that Coach Walter Meanwell had a four-year stretch during which his teams went 53–1. (The team didn’t finish strong in the 1914–15 season, however, going 4–4 over its last eight games.) However, the 1911–12 team that went undefeated had to share the Big Ten Championship with Purdue (which had gone 12–0). The Helms Athletic Foundation (which operated from 1936 to 1982) retroactively named the Badgers national champions in 1912, 1914, and 1916, and the UW won the NCAA Tournament in 1941. The UW has appeared in the NCAA Final Four three times: 1941 (champions), 2000, and 2014.
Led by future NBA All-Star Michael Finley, the 1993 men’s team returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946 and notched its first tournament win since winning it all in 1941.
The 2007 Badgers earned the team’s first number 1 ranking on the AP poll with a 26–2 record. Unfortunately, the team lost the next day to the unranked Michigan State Spartans 64–55. The Badgers entered the NCAA Tournament as a 2 seed but lost to UNLV in the second round.
Additional reporting: John Allen