Wisconsin sports: Disappointing 2022-23 leads to new beginnings

 The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a lot to brag about. From its consistent academic prestige to its beautiful lakeshore campus and buzzing social scene, UW-Madison has earned its rightful place among the top universities in the nation. However, another attribute that Wisconsin boasts that has helped in giving the university its national respect is its long and storied athletic programs, specifically in football and basketball. When thinking of UW-Madison, you often picture those classic fall Saturdays revolving around Badger football, when mornings are set aside for tailgating in preparation for the game and afternoons are spent at historic Camp Randall Stadium taking in that fall Wisconsin weather and usually a Badger victory. Or maybe you think of those magical Big Ten and NCAA tournament runs mounted by the basketball team, with their seemingly annual late season magic signifying an end to yet another chilling Wisconsin winter. Unfortunately, this past season, Wisconsin may have lost some of that luster. After decades of incredibly steady success in both sports, Wisconsin’s latest seasons in both football and basketball have been uncharacteristically bad. 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, while the basketball team went 17-14 and didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. 

Ahead of my freshman year at UW, 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. As a lifelong Badger fan who grew up in the state, now was my chance to get an up-close look at the teams I’ve always rooted for. I’d always attended games at Camp Randall and the Kohl Center, but now I had the opportunity to be a frequenter at Badger sporting events. Watching games as a simple fan is one thing, but actually attending the university would surely make it feel like something much bigger. All of this made me incredibly excited for the upcoming seasons. However, I, along with the rest of Badger nation, was met with stark disappointment from both the football and basketball programs this past year. 

As a fan, it’s only natural instinct to let your personal biases get the best of you. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of building lofty, over-the-top expectations. As Badger fans, we all know that feeling – the season schedule comes out, you start foaming at the mouth at the thought of football, and before you know it, you’re envisioning an undefeated season and a trip to the College Football Playoff. Our better, more reasonable instincts tell us to knock it off, but the football crazed part of the mind overrules. Sometimes, you just can’t help it. Some seasons, the expectations are reasonable, others, not so much. But coming into this year’s football season, the anticipation of success was valid, as Wisconsin was ranked #18 in the Preseason AP Poll. Maybe visions of an undefeated season would have been a bit much, but expecting to compete for the Big Ten title? That was certainly reasonable. But what we got was nothing close to Big Ten championship caliber football

After starting the season off with a bang, blasting Illinois State 38-0 in the season opener, Badger fans’ hopes of a dominant defense and potent rushing attack were only confirmed, albeit against an FCS opponent. But it only took a week for the expectations of fans across the state to take a major hit. Wisconsin’s 17-14 home loss to Washington State in Week 2 was uninspiring to say the least. Immediately following this blunder, Wisconsin’s problems suddenly were clearly visible.  After an offseason of talking ourselves into quarterback Graham Mertz finally being the star player he was expected to be, putting up 14 points at home against a middling Pac-12 team made it difficult not to let doubts creep in again. Even more concerning was Wisconsin’s normally lethal running game mustering up a meager 53 rushing yards. If there has been anything to expect from Wisconsin football over the last decade, it has been reliably dominant play from their running backs, so being held in check by Washington State’s otherwise ordinary defense definitely called for concern. In the wake of such an alarming loss, all excitement for Wisconsin’s 2022 season was put on hold. 

As the season went on, less and less fun was had in Madison. In Week 4, Wisconsin got bludgeoned on the road in the Big Ten opener by third-ranked Ohio State, 52-21. The Badgers came in as heavy underdogs, and were immediately reminded why; Ohio State established dominance and scored touchdowns on their first four possessions. Heading into the nighttime matchup, many believed Wisconsin could at least make it interesting. Yet in almost an instant the game was over, as Ohio State led 31-7 at halftime. 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 is something worse. This was the epitome of ugly. Wisconsin was simply outplayed in every facet of the game, something foreign to the program, no matter the foe. 

Things only got worse a week later. Welcoming back former coach Bret Bielema and the Illinois Fighting Illini, Wisconsin and their fans expected to get back on track after the disaster that occurred in Columbus a week before. Though the opposition was different, the nightmare continued onto another Saturday, where they met with a rude awakening from their longtime little brothers to the south. If you thought the Ohio State game left a bad taste, this one was on a whole other level. Losing at home on a picturesque fall day is never fun, but when it’s a 34-10 blowout at the hands of Illinois – that’s flat out embarrassing. Standing in the student section that day, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. Of course, gameday in Madison is a blast for any fun-seeking student, but sweet victory makes it undoubtedly better. But where was the winning? I was expecting to be a part of a winning culture. Instead here we were losing to the perennial punching bag of the Big Ten.

Apparently Wisconsin’s athletic director Chris McIntosh felt similarly to me, because the next day he fired longtime head coach Paul Chryst in a program altering decision. Anyone following Wisconsin football semi-closely realized that something about this season just felt off. But few expected such drastic changes to be made so suddenly, including me. Chryst, a UW alum, in the midst of his eighth season as head coach, had accumulated a 67-26 record with the Badgers, going 43-18 in Big Ten play. Chryst had served as the model of consistency, guiding Wisconsin to three Big Ten West championships and six bowl wins. But after eight seasons of not being able to get over the hump, such lackluster performances called for a changing of the guard. At the same time, it caught the college football world by surprise. Wisconsin isn’t known for making such flashy moves; they hadn’t fired a coach since 1989 and had never before fired a coach midseason. While it may have seemed brash to cut ties with a member of the Badger family so abruptly, the decision signaled Wisconsin’s urgency to right the ship. McIntosh realized Wisconsin’s goals of competing for Big Ten championships were drifting further and further away, and made sure to do something about it. 

McIntosh made longtime defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard 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 at Iowa and vs. Minnesota put a damper on the ending to Wisconsin’s 2022 campaign. While Leonhard did what he could to right the ship, going 4-2 to finish the season, Wisconsin was still left with an ugly 6-6 record and a bad taste in their mouth heading into the offseason. Aside from the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Wisconsin finished the regular season without a winning record for the first time since 2001. Coming into the season, Wisconsin 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 basketball to look forward to. Basketball doesn’t hold quite the weight football does when it comes to producing fan excitement in Madison, but  the consistent success by Greg Gard’s teams, and Bo Ryan’s before him, have put Wisconsin on the map in terms of college basketball relevancy. The program had just produced a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft, Johnny Davis, and claimed a share of the Big Ten regular season title a year before. Following such a season, Badger hoops seemed to be on the come up. Senior forward Tyler Wahl was to be relied on to become a team leader after averaging 11.4 points, and 6 rebounds a game in 2021-22, and center Steven Crowl and point guard Chucky Hepburn were poised to take next steps in their development. Incoming freshman guard Connor Essegian also generated excitement for the upcoming season. While many picked Wisconsin to finish in the middle to bottom of the Big Ten, an NCAA Tournament appearance seemed more than feasible heading into the season. Even if national pundits weren’t expecting much from Wisconsin, fans had grown accustomed to seeing the basketball program outplay expectations. After all, predictions for the 2021-22 team were similar, and that team finished first in the Big Ten. 

By January, it looked as though Wisconsin was well on its way to exceeding expectations. The team was 11-2, with losses coming against reigning national champion Kansas and a stingy Wake Forest team. By the time the calendar flipped to the new year, Wisconsin had already beaten four future NCAA Tournament teams. Wisconsin had started off the season unranked, but had climbed up to #14 in the AP Poll. It looked like we were in the midst of another successful Badger basketball season. 

Then, suddenly, between Jan. 7 and 28 Wisconsin lost six out of seven games, completely flipping the script on the season. They entered the season with nothing to lose, playing freely for the first month and a half, but all of a sudden found themselves scrambling to find an identity after a January skid. It started with the ankle injury Wahl suffered Jan. 3 vs 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. The confidence Wisconsin displayed early in the season was swiftly replaced with inconsistency that plagued them the rest of the season. Without Wahl, Wisconsin’s flaws were put on full display. Their offensive struggles were the main focal point, as they were unable to develop a reliable threat after Wahl’s injury. Going home for winter break in late December, Wisconsin basketball looked to be in a good position, but upon returning a month later, they seemed trapped in a dark hole, with no one knowing when they would be able to climb out. 

The rest of the season was mired with the same inconsistency that plagued the Badgers in January. Throughout February, Wisconsin looked capable of winning, and even going on a run, with wins at Ohio State, Penn State, and vs. Michigan and Iowa. However, sandwiched in between those victories were some extremely disheartening losses. After showing some heart with a 65-60 road win in Columbus on Feb. 2nd, Wisconsin responded by scoring only 52 points in an ugly home loss to a feisty Northwestern squad. The next week, Wisconsin battled its way to a gritty overtime win over Penn State, only to falter to usual punching bag Nebraska, in a game they had to win. 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.” Wisconsin would lose a game they were favored in in disheartening fashion, then respond by winning their fans back in a hard-fought, seemingly season-changing victory, only to repeat the process by losing yet another winnable game in their next contest. It was truly a maddening process. Everyone knew what this team was capable of, they’d shown the ability to beat good teams in close games, but Wisconsin’s lack of consistency ultimately plagued their season. 

A blowout loss to Ohio State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament ultimately did Wisconsin in, dashing the little hopes left of reaching the NCAA Tournament, and capping off a disappointing season. While Wisconsin wasn’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 has only missed the NCAA Tournament once since 1999, so for Wisconsin to miss out on the tournament this season was extremely disappointing. 

However, for all the disappointment the football and basketball teams gave us, it certainly doesn’t look like these struggles will be long term.  While this year was certainly disappointing, these programs are in no way bound to be mired in mediocrity for years to come.  Things are certainly looking up for the future, especially in football, as newly hired head coach Luke Fickell and his staff have breathed new life in the program. Fickell, who left Cincinnati for the Wisconsin opening, compiled a 63-25 record with the Bearcats and led them to the College Football Playoff in 2021-22 as the first Group of 5 conference team to qualify for the event. Fickell’s emphasis on recruiting has especially generated fan excitement. The  major knock on the previous coaching staff was their lack of commitment to recruiting, as over the years, the recruiting department had grown stale.  But about five months into the Fickell era at Wisconsin, the focus on recruiting is clearly visible, and results can already be seen. A revamped recruiting department has been instrumental in Fickell quickly adding a handful of highly rated players to the 2023 recruiting class, and the 2024 class is off to a fast pace as well, as the Badgers have gained commitments from two more four-stars. Most notably, Fickell and his staff have completely restocked a depleted QB room, as Wisconsin added transfer QBs, Tanner Mordecai, Nick Evers, and Braedyn Locke, as well as a commitment from 4-star Mabrey Mettauer in the 2024 class. Along with Fickell comes new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who stresses a pass-heavy offense, something somewhat foreign in Madison. Longo’s offense calls for a free-playing style of passing football, therefore allowing for a greater mobilization of running backs Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi. So following a letdown of a fall, a fresh new coach in Fickell, and the staff he brings with him, are set to lead Wisconsin into an exciting new era of football. 

On the basketball front, Wisconsin’s play in the NIT allowed for a positive end to the season, and the opportunity to start next year with a clean state. While they missed the NCAA tournament, Gard accepted a bid in the NIT, and the Badgers made the most out of it and went on a run to finish off the season. Wisconsin beat Bradley, Liberty, and Oregon before losing to North Texas in the tournament semifinal. At the very least, Wisconsin capitalized on their opportunity and gained some quality postseason experience. Last week, the Badgers received word that Wahl will return for his final season of college eligibility, which sets Wisconsin up to return all five starters from last season. After a trying season and a postseason, Wisconsin is bound to put together a successful 2023-24 campaign. 

There is no doubt Wisconsin’s past football and basketball season’s have been nothing short of disappointing.  If only one of the two were to happen, a six win football season or missing out in or the NCAA Tournament in basketball would be disappointing enough. But for both to happen in the same year? That just doesn’t happen at Wisconsin, and it rightly caused angst and frustration within such a passionate fanbase. The tradition behind the programs have never waned, but in recent seasons, especially last year, the play and consistency in football and basketball have caused concern among many. But for as upsetting as the last twelve months were for Wisconsin fans, the future is prone to look different. A highly anticipated new era of football in Madison begins with the arrival of Luke Fickell and company. With a refreshing new head coach and new-look offense, 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 full of growing pains seems to be out of the way. As Wisconsin struggled through a frustrating year, they gained experience, and with the return of all the main pieces, plus an intriguing freshman class, a return to winning ways is expected. So while the past year of Wisconsin football and basketball was in no ways pretty, the future in Madison is bound to be bright. 

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