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"The Voice" with Matt Lepay

Matt Lepay ("Voice of the Badgers")

As the Wisconsin Badgers prepare for their eleventh straight trip to the NCAA tournament, it can be easy to take these appearances for granted. Here is some unsolicited advice—don’t. Earning a bid is quite an achievement, especially this year, when the Badgers rallied from a six-game losing streak to finish fourth in the Big Ten. Ladies and gentlemen, teams just don’t recover from six-game losing streaks to snag an at-large bid—until now.

Having moved to Madison in 1988, I spent the first several years on the job wondering what it would be like to be around a team that had special seasons. What would it be like to see a team win a Big Ten championship? What would it be like to see a team make the NCAA field, and from time to time make a big run? I, and more importantly you as a Badger fan, have had that opportunity many times in the last decade. Kind of fun isn’t it?

The opening week of the tournament makes me think back to 1994, when Stu Jackson’s Badgers ended a 47-year NCAA drought by making the tournament as a nine-seed. That was quite a season for UW Athletics. A couple of months earlier, the Badgers magical football season concluded with the school’s first-ever victory in the Rose Bowl. Now, the basketball team was going to the Big Dance? Wisconsin? How things were changing on Monroe Street!

The Badgers were sent to Ogden, Utah, to play eighth-seeded Cincinnati. Looking back, the game certainly had some star power. The Badgers were led by Michael Finley, Rashard Griffith and Tracy Webster. The Bearcats, with Bob Huggins as the coach, had standout players such as Dontonio Wingfield, LaZelle Durden and Damon Flint. It was quite a game.

The Badgers jumped on UC to take a 10-2 lead in the opening minutes. At the half, Wisconsin led by eight, but the Bearcats made a run to turn it into a tight game. As can often happen in the NCAAs, a key to the game came from an unlikely source. Griffith had many strengths as a college player. Shooting free throws was not one of them. That season he shot 58 percent from the line. That night in Ogden, Griffith knocked down 12 of 14 free throws in route to a 22 point, 15 rebound performance. The Badgers key players were just a little bit better than Cincinnati’s bunch, as Wisconsin advanced with an 80-72 victory.

It was an elated group of players and coaches, and rightfully so. There were some who questioned whether the Badgers were worthy of a bid, but the team answered the doubters with a big-time effort. The Badgers lost their second round game to top-seeded Missouri, but proved to be a very tough out. The game was a shootout, with Finley scoring 36 points, while Webster added 27. Tigers star Melvin Booker dropped 35 on Wisconsin in a 109-96 victory. Yes folks, the Badgers scored 96 points, and that wasn’t enough. It was a slightly different era in college basketball.

Even in my small role as a radio announcer, my first trip to the NCAA Tournament was an unforgettable experience. Everything is very organized. From the team’s open practice times, media commitments, security, to the type of plastic cups you can bring into the arena. It is still just basketball, but it is a little bit different.

It should be different. Given there are more than 340 Division I programs, it is a very select group that gets to take part in the tournament. To make it eleven-straight years speaks volumes about the Wisconsin program and its ability to sustain a high level of success. Savor these days. It wasn’t that long ago that making the tournament was something UW players and fans could only dream about. Nothing beats living the dream.

Appears in "The Voice" with Matt Lepay

Tagged with Badger Blog, Men's Basketball Blog, "The Voice"

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