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Badger State flexes its March muscle again

By Michael Hunt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

MILWAUKEE — For the second consecutive season, nearly 13 percent of the remaining NCAA basketball field is from the state of Wisconsin.

Like last year, I initially struggled with getting my head around that notion, especially when the rest of the bracket is again filled with usual-suspect schools from the customary locations: Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, blue-blooded places such as those.

On one hand, to make too much of Marquette and Wisconsin being back in the Sweet 16 would be doing a disservice to the tradition and continued excellence of our leading college basketball programs.

As mentioned in this space last week, it would have been a disappointment had the Golden Eagles and Badgers not advanced beyond a second tournament game.

Then there is reality that both schools’ inclusion in the Sweet 16 should never surprise anyone outside state lines.

As a testament to its habitual distinction as a basketball power from times that predated Al McGuire, Marquette is there for the 15th time. As a point of reference, Indiana — and congratulations to former Marquette coach Tom Crean for finally getting that program back where it belongs — will also make its 15th Sweet 16 appearance this week.

Wisconsin is back for the sixth time, all since 2000. As late as the early ’90s, it was almost inconceivable that “Wisconsin basketball” and “Sweet 16” could have written in the same sentence without it being shipped right back to the copy desk for amendment, or maybe over to the local comedy club for a yuk or two.

That all changed with Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan, with a nod of recognition to those who made the Kohl Center possible. When the Badgers joined the modern world in the mid-‘90s with facilities and then with a couple of brilliant coaches from within the state, “game-changer” didn’t begin to cover it all.

On the other hand, even for two years running now, it is still a wondrous thing to look at the pared bracket and see Marquette and Wisconsin among the last 16 standing.

As much as this has become a college basketball state, it never gets old like it might elsewhere. Anyone who takes this for granted needs to take a closer look at the ways both schools defy the odds.

Neither school is ever going to attract ready-made players. Buzz Williams and Ryan develop players. That is a hard concept for the elite-level recruit to accept. So might be the concept of “team basketball.” Marquette and Wisconsin do that as well as anyone in the country.

No one would rightly complain if the Golden Eagles don’t get out of Phoenix — where they will have a built-in cheering section from the Brewers’ fans already there — and the Badgers don’t escape Boston.

Anything they do beyond the third game just adds to the mystiques of two of the hardest-working teams anywhere.

But from this point, it’s like the ’70s act Blondie used to sing: “Dreaming is free.”

Marquette’s last Final Four appearance came as part of the Dwyane Wade thrill ride in 2003. Its only national title came 35 years ago.

The Badgers haven’t been to the Final Four since 2000, when Bennett took the unlikeliest cast of characters in maybe the history of the tournament. And UW’s only national title was in 1941. Peach baskets may or may not have been optional 71 years ago.

I’m sticking with my original thought that the Badgers are not compromised by being in the same bracket with Syracuse. The Orange should not strike anyone as unbeatable.

Marquette, meanwhile, remains on solid rails to meet up with Michigan State in the national quarterfinals. The Golden Eagles’ bracket has been favorable, but they are playing well enough to be prepared for just about anyone.

I don’t expect to write next week that 50 percent of the remaining field is from the state. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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