Tonight, the Wisconsin Men's Basketball team tips off its most-anticipated season ever. The Badgers return four of five starters and eight of their top nine scorers from a team that was a freshman's 25-foot 3-pointer away from playing for the National Championship last March. Wisconsin is ranked number 3 in the pre-season polls and is the pre-season pick to win the Big Ten. Center Frank Kaminsky is a pre-season All American, the pre-season Conference Player of the Year and a Sports Illustrated cover boy. Forward Sam Dekker is rumored to be an NBA draft prospect and could turn pro after this season. It should be a glorious four and a half months ahead of us Badgers fans. And yet, I have this overwhelming sense of dread.
We Badgers fans have been here before--usually with the football team. The '99 Badgers were ranked high early--then suffered inexplicable losses to Cincinnati and Michigan in back to back weeks and dropped out of the National Championship discussion (they did go back to win their second-consecutive Rose Bowl and Ron Dayne did win the Heisman Trophy). Bret Bielema had a team with Russell Wilson, Monte Ball and JJ Watt on it--and didn't win a Rose Bowl. There have been a couple of years when the Badgers Men's Hockey team has been a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament and failed to get out of the regionals--so disappointment has been no stranger to Madison over the years.
What if Frank the Tank breaks down mid-season--or loses the touch he has developed over the last three years? What if Sam Dekker's ankle injury suffered in pre-season practice never fully heals and he can't get off his shot? What if Trevon Jackson goes back to being the Human Turnover Machine? What if Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Bronson Koenigs don't get any better? What if no one steps up to make all of the clutch three-pointers that Ben Brust made the last few years? What if officials get tired of Bo Ryan barking at them after every call that goes against the Badgers and he set a Big Ten record for technical fouls and ejections?
And that's just the regular season stuff to worry about. With the one and done nature of the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen in March. There is always a hot-shooting Cornell to knock you out. Or a mid-major with six seniors that play lights-out defense. Or a Kentucky that ends up in your regional with five NBA Lottery prospects that make every clutch shot necessary. Or there is a crazy half-court shot that goes in to beat you--or a buzzer-beater that gets waved off due to replay--or a tipped ball that you thought was going to go your way and instead results in a rally-killing turnover.
The 2000 Badgers appearance in the Final Four will always be my favorite. Not because it was the first of my lifetime--but because it was so unexpected. A team that literally could not shoot the basketball smothered four teams in the Regionals and made it to the promised land (and likely would have played for the Championship that year--had they not had to play Michigan State for the fourth time that season.) It was a wild and unexpected ride--where you felt like the team was playing with "house money" after the first round. This year will be different. This year, the big road wins won't be a surprise. Fans won't storm the court if they win the Conference Championship. And anything less than making it at least one game farther than last year will be considered a huge disappointment.
I'll be watching all of it--but it will be through the cracks between my fingers as I have my hands over my face all season long.