Wisconsin had a lot of work to do to stretch this streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 15 years and counting.
Of all the remarkable accomplishments by coach Bo Ryan in his 12 seasons running the Badgers, this might have been his best. After losing four nonconference games with a rugged Big Ten schedule ahead, just reaching the tournament was a tall task when the holidays arrived.
But not only did the Badgers do that, they rose again to the top in a season when the league was as strong as it's been in perhaps decades, finishing in a tie for fourth place and getting to the Big Ten championship game on Sunday.
Their reward was a No. 5 seed in the West region of the NCAA tournament and an opening matchup on Friday in Kansas City, Mo., against No. 12 seed Mississippi.
"I'm proud of our guys that they were able to put themselves in this position," Ryan said in Chicago after the Badgers lost to Ohio State 50-43 in the conference tournament final. "If somebody would have told me, 'OK, coach, you get Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, and we'll give you two out of three,' I think I would have taken it. I thought our guys fought pretty hard. That's three grueling days right there."
Wisconsin beat Michigan in the quarterfinals and Indiana in the semifinals before falling to Ohio State. The Badgers went 5-4 against the rest of the league's top five teams, beginning with the 64-59 win at Indiana on Jan. 15 that served notice this bunch was just as tough as the others Ryan has had, even if this group isn't as talented.
"We're just excited for the next challenge, and our next challenge is Ole Miss," junior shooting guard Ben Brust said. "Whatever happens on the other side, we have to wait and see."
Mississippi (26-8) got hot at the right time, rolling to the Southeastern Conference tournament title for the first time since 1981 behind stars Murphy Holloway and Marshall Henderson. The Rebels beat Florida on Sunday for the championship, taking down a team that "crushed" the Badgers in November, in Ryan's word. That 74-56 decision at Florida was the largest losing margin for Wisconsin this season.
"Every team that's in is good. Every team has had their run. Every team in the tournament has shown that they can get things done," Ryan said. "I would say Ole Miss has shown they can do quite a few things."
Waiting in the next round if Wisconsin moves on could be Kansas State, which as the No. 4 seed will play the Boise State-La Salle winner. But
"We're not going to look past anybody. That's the biggest thing in this tournament," said senior power forward Mike Bruesewitz, adding: "But I like our draw. I think we've got a good shot."
Wisconsin and Mississippi have never played.
The Badgers are 25-17 all time in the tournament, including 16-11 under Ryan. They were No. 4 seeds in each of the last three seasons and reached the round of 16 the last two years. They've never lost their opening game in six previous trips with Ryan as a No. 5 seed or higher.
"It's a special thing. Everyone dreams of it growing up," Brust said. "You want to play in the NCAA tournament. So enjoy every moment but at the same time stay focused on the task at hand here because we're capable of making a run here."