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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Football coach Luke Fickell spoke in front of the Kohl Center faithful on January 3, 2022. (Photo by Taylor Wolfram / The Daily Cardinal)

Column: A year of questions leaves Badger men’s basketball, football fighting decline

Wisconsin’s men’s basketball and football teams are experiencing dips in success, but hope is far from lost.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has plenty to brag about. From its consistent academic prestige to its beautiful lakeshore campus and buzzing social scene, UW-Madison is considered by many a top university in the nation. However, another attribute that garners national respect is Wisconsin’s long and storied athletic programs — specifically in football and men’s basketball.

When thinking of UW-Madison, you may picture those classic Saturdays revolving around Badger football. Mornings are set aside for tailgating and afternoons or evenings are spent at historic Camp Randall Stadium, taking in the fall Wisconsin weather and perhaps a Badger victory. 

Or, maybe you think of those magical Big Ten and NCAA Tournament runs mounted by the men’s basketball team, with their seemingly annual late-season heroics signifying an end to another chilling Wisconsin winter.

Unfortunately, some of that luster was absent this past season. After decades of remarkable success in both sports, Wisconsin’s latest seasons in both football and men’s basketball proved to be uncharacteristically disappointing. In what may be the worst combined sports season in almost thirty years, the football team finished the season 7-6, winning the measly Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The men’s basketball team went 17-14 and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. 

I’d be lying if I said the football and basketball seasons weren’t some of the things I was looking forward to the most ahead of my freshman year at UW. As a lifelong Badger fan, my expectations tend to be high, but the anticipation of success was valid coming into this year’s football season. 

Wisconsin football was ranked #18 in the 2022 AP Preseason Poll. Perhaps visions of an undefeated season would have been a bit much, but expecting to compete for the Big Ten title was certainly reasonable. 

After starting the football season off with a bang by blasting Illinois State 38-0 in the season opener, Wisconsin’s hopes of a dominant defense and potent rushing attack were seemingly confirmed, albeit against a lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent. 

It only took one week for the expectations of fans across the state to take a major hit, as Wisconsin’s 17-14 home loss to Washington State in Week 2 was uninspiring to say the least. Wisconsin’s typically lethal running game and quarterback Graham Mertz combined for only 14 points against the Cougars, a middling Pac-12 team. In the wake of such an alarming loss, much of the excitement for Wisconsin’s 2022 season was put on hold. 

As the season went on, gameday excitement throughout Madison dwindled by the week. In Week 4, third-ranked Ohio State bludgeoned Wisconsin on the road in the Big Ten opener, 52-21. The Badgers came in as heavy underdogs and were immediately reminded why after Ohio State established dominance and scored touchdowns on each of their first four possessions. The game was practically over as soon as it started after Ohio State jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead. 

Falling to Ohio State — a behemoth of the college football world and longtime feared Big Ten foe — is one thing. But losing in such embarrassing fashion was something worse. This was the epitome of ugly. 

Things only got more miserable a week later. Welcoming back former coach Bret Bielema and the Illinois Fighting Illini to Camp Randall, Wisconsin fans expected to get back on track after the disaster that occurred in Columbus a week before. Linebacker Nick Herbig even took to Twitter to display his confidence, telling critics, “Keep that same energy,” after a presumed bounce back against Illinois, assumingly referring to the negative energy directed towards the team following the Ohio State loss. 

Though the opponent was different, similar nightmares continued into another Saturday, where they were met with a rude awakening from their longtime little brothers to the south. 

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If you thought the Ohio State game left a bad taste, the loss to Illinois stung even more. Losing at home on a picturesque fall day is never fun, but it’s flat out embarrassing when it’s a 34-10 blowout at the hands of Illinois. 

Standing in the student section that day, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. Of course, gameday in Madison can be a blast for any student, but sweet victory makes it undoubtedly better. Where was the winning? I expected to be a part of a winning culture. Instead, here we were, losing to the perennial punching bag of the Big Ten.

Chris McIntosh, Wisconsin’s athletic director, had similar feelings. The day after losing to Illinois, he fired longtime head coach Paul Chryst in a program-altering decision. 

chryst, mertz.jpeg
Courtesy of Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports

Anyone following Wisconsin football realized that this season was uncharacteristic for the Badgers. But few, including myself, expected such drastic changes to be made so suddenly. 

Chryst, a UW alum in the midst of his eighth season as head coach, had served as the model of consistency, accumulating a 67-26 record with the Badgers. A record of 43-18 in Big Ten play was good for three Big Ten West championships and six bowl wins. However, after eight seasons of not being able to get over the hump, such lackluster performances called for a changing of the guard. The decision to cut ties with Chryst signaled Wisconsin’s urgency to right the ship. 

McIntosh appointed longtime defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as interim head coach, and the Badgers went on to win three out of their next four games — beating Northwestern, Purdue and Maryland. Unfortunately, late season losses in Iowa and against Minnesota put a damper on the ending to Wisconsin’s 2022 campaign. 

While Leonhard did what he could to right the ship, Wisconsin was still left with an ugly 6-6 record and their heads hung low heading into the offseason. Aside from the COVID-shortened 2020 season, this was the first time Wisconsin finished the regular season without a winning record since 2001. 

Coming into the season, the Badgers expected to compete for the Big Ten title. Instead, they finished in the bottom half of their division with a losing record in conference play. A disappointing season, to say the least. 

Following a challenging football season, at least there was still the fun of basketball season to look forward to. While some may consider football the main show in Madison, the consistent success of head coach Greg Gard’s teams — and Bo Ryan’s before him — kept Wisconsin relevant in the men’s college basketball world. 

Many picked Wisconsin to finish in the middle to bottom of the Big Ten, but heading into the season an NCAA Tournament appearance seemed more than feasible. Even if national pundits weren’t expecting much from Wisconsin, fans had grown accustomed to seeing the basketball program outplay expectations.

By January, it looked as though Wisconsin was well on its way to exceeding expectations. The team was 11-2 and had already beaten four future NCAA Tournament teams. The Badgers started off the season unranked but climbed up to #14 in the AP Poll. It looked like the Badgers were in the midst of another successful season. 

Wisconsin basketball defeats Maryland 64-59 on in the Kohl Center at University of Wisconsin- Madison.

Then, between Jan. 7 and 28, Wisconsin lost six out of seven games and completely flipped the script on the season. It started with Tyler Wahl’s ankle injury on Jan. 3 against Minnesota. From there, Wisconsin was forced to play without their leading scorer for three games. And by the time Wahl was able to return on Jan. 17, he was a shell of his former self. In just seven games, Wisconsin’s season went from surprisingly promising to extremely alarming. 

Wisconsin’s early-season confidence was swiftly replaced with inconsistency that plagued the rest of the season. Without Wahl, Wisconsin’s flaws were put on full display. Going home for winter break in late December, Wisconsin basketball looked to be in a positive position. But upon returning a month later, the Badgers seemed trapped in a dark hole with no one knowing when or if they would be able to climb out. 

The rest of the season was mired with similar inconsistency. Throughout February, Wisconsin proved capable of winning with key wins against conference opponents. However, sandwiched between those victories were some extremely disheartening losses. 

After showing some heart with a 65-60 road win in Columbus on Feb. 2, Wisconsin responded by scoring just 52 points in an ugly home loss to a feisty Northwestern squad. 

The next week, Wisconsin battled its way to a gritty overtime win against Penn State, only to falter to Nebraska in a must-win game. Three days later, they beat Michigan 64-59 at a packed Kohl Center. 

From a fan’s perspective, watching the Badgers in February can be summed up by the famous Michael Corleone line in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” 

It was truly maddening. Fans knew what the Badgers were capable of as they’d shown their ability to beat good teams in close games, but Wisconsin’s lack of consistency sank their season. 

A blowout loss to Ohio State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament ultimately did Wisconsin in, dashing what little hopes were left of reaching the NCAA Tournament. While the Badgers weren’t expected to seriously compete for a Big Ten title, the norm for the program is, at the very least, an NCAA Tournament appearance. Before this season, Wisconsin had only missed the NCAA Tournament once this century, so an absence was extremely disappointing.

There is no doubt Wisconsin’s recent football and basketball seasons have been nothing short of disappointing. A six-win football season and missing out on the NCAA Tournament in basketball are disappointing enough results on their own, but for both to happen in the same year? That rarely happens at Wisconsin, causing major upheavals within the athletic programs. 

The pride behind the programs never waned, but in recent seasons — especially this past year — the performance in football and men’s basketball was unquestionably below usual standards. But, for as difficult as the last twelve months were for Wisconsin football and men’s basketball, the future is expected to look different. 


A highly anticipated new era of football in Madison begins with the arrival of new head coach Luke Fickell and company. With a refreshing new leader and “new-look” offense helmed by new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, excitement for Wisconsin football has arguably never been stronger, making it much easier to forget about the struggles of last season. 

And in basketball, a season of growing pains seems to be out of the way. As the Badgers struggled through a frustrating year, they gained experience. With the return of all the main pieces — plus an intriguing freshman class — a return to winning ways is expected. 

While the past year of Wisconsin football and basketball was in no way pretty, the future in Madison is bound to be bright. 

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