Wisconsin may be old-fashioned, but winning never goes out of style
As Wisconsin was struggling to a 12-19 record and a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten last season, the word in Madison was that third-year coach Dick Bennett's conservative, defense-minded system was as passé as a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars. The grumbling started in earnest when the Badgers' only marquee player, junior forward Sam Okey, left the team last January to transfer to conference rival Iowa. Since Okey was the only McDonald's All-America on the team and had been signed by Bennett's predecessor, Stan Van Gundy, some Badgers fans got the notion that their coach was simply too old-school to relate to today's big-time stars. Even Bennett, who'd had winning teams for two decades at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to Madison, admitted, "Sometimes I think my time has come and it's going."
This season, however, the criticism has been silenced by a player who even Bennett thought wasn't going to last long as a Badger. Sean Mason, a 6'2", fifth-year senior guard, also came to Wisconsin to play in the up-tempo style favored by Van Gundy, but when Bennett arrived with his rigid half-court offense and relentless man-to-man defense, Mason's future seemed uncertain. "I didn't think he would make it," says Bennett. "I thought we were destined for different roads."
Mason remained on Bennett's road, but it hasn't always been happy motoring. In January 1996, 13 games into his first season under Bennett, Mason tore the interior cruciate ligament in his light knee. After a year of rehab lie returned to action, only to blow the ACL in his left knee in the fourth game of the 1996-97 season. He survived last season intact, averaging 155 points a game as virtually the only scoring threat Wisconsin had after Okey's departure. Meanwhile, the Badgers' struggles pushed him closer to Bennett. "I began to understand what he was talking about," Mason says. "We talked a lot more, and I started to get a feel for what he was seeing through his eyes and not just what I was seeing through my eyes."
As a result Mason has had a superb season, and Wisconsin has shown eye-opening improvement. The Badgers, 16-3 through Sunday, have developed an offensive alternative in senior guard Ty Calderwood, though Mason still had led Wisconsin in scoring in 18 of its 19 games and was ranked fourth in the Big Ten with an average of 18.9 points a game. Mason also leads the Badgers in perspective. "Those knee operations humbled me," he says. "When I came out of high school five years ago, you couldn't tell me too much. But college is about living and learning."
Mason is the primary reason blue-collar Wisconsin, a preseason pick to finish anywhere from seventh to 11th in the Big Ten, has impressive road victories at Rhode Island, Temple and Texas, and is ranked 15th in the nation. Meanwhile, the 55-year-old Bennett's system has gone from "antiquated" to "time-honored" and is suddenly the envy of many opposing coaches. "The best thing that ever happened to Dick was Okey leaving, because it's Dick's program now, and his entire team plays hard and together and smart," said Northwestern coach Kevin O'Neill after his Wildcats lost to Wisconsin 57-49 last Saturday. "Dick's [system] is not for everybody, but his guys really perform for him."
A Team No One Wants to Play
It's time to play Name That Program. Here are the clues: This school has the fifth-highest winning percentage in the 1990s, putting it ahead of Arkansas, Connecticut, UCLA and Duke. Only Kentucky has won at a better clip over the last six seasons. The coach has won 80% of his games in 20 years at the school and has graduated 92% of his players in this decade. This season, through Sunday, his team had a 14-2 record, was riding an 11-game winning streak (including a Dec. 5 victory over then No. 3 North Carolina) and was undefeated in conference play.
If you failed to guess the College of Charleston, don't feel bad: The Cougars don't immediately leap to mind when listing the nation's top programs. Charleston was the media's Cinderella during the 1997 NCAA tournament, in which it was a No. 12 seed and knocked off Maryland before narrowly losing to eventual champ Arizona in the second round. Now coach John Kresse has a group that appears to be capable of achieving that same postseason success. "If you ask most coaches around the country to name some teams you don't want to play in the [NCAA] tournament, the College of Charleston would be right up there," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge says. "It's not a big name, but that's changing some because of the upsets that team has pulled off lately."
Guthridge's Tar Heels fell victim to one of those upsets when Cougars senior forward Danny Johnson's putback with .1 of a second remaining gave Charleston a 66-64 win in Charlotte. It was Kresse's second win over a Top 10 team in four tries since the Cougars completed the move from NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1991. Through Sunday, Charleston hadn't lost a game since beating the Tar Heels. (The Cougars' two losses were to South Carolina and Georgia.) Still, Charleston isn't ranked in the Top 25. "I'm a basketball TV addict, and I see teams 16 through 25 that I know we're as good as or better than," Kresse says. "We're not on the tube very often, so we don't have that recognition, but we're as hot as can be."