Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 3/6/12
MADISON, Wis. They gathered in nervous silence, an unsettling uncertainty converging like a tidal wave in the pit of their collective stomachs. Selection Sunday, as it's come to be known, is supposed to be a celebration for the teams that qualify for college basketball's most prestigious event, the NCAA Tournament. Of course, a celebration only occurs once a team knows it has actually qualified.Wisconsin's basketball players didn't have that luxury on March 13, 1994, when they met at head coach Stu Jackson's house. All players could do was sit and wait, the fate of an entire season and five decades of failure having boiled down to a tournament selection committee and one 30-minute national television special. "Everybody was pretty worried that we'd walk out of that Selection Sunday with no bid," said Andy Kilbride, a guard on the 1993-94 Badgers team. "I thought, Man it's really going to suck if we don't get in.' "Perhaps 47 consecutive years without a tournament bid had prepared the Badgers for further disappointment. But just minutes before the TV announcements, Jackson wired for sound from his home on the broadcast received the good news in his ear from old friend Dick Vitale in the studio: Wisconsin was in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid."I remember my heart dropping in my stomach," Jackson said. "I was so happy. I didn't say anything for that next minute or two, and then I sat back and watched the team's reaction when it was announced on television. It was literally an explosion in my house. It was unbelievable."Mass hysteria ensued in Jackson's living room, a sea of paper plates and snacks splattering across the floor as players and coaches embraced. There it was in block letters on TV for all to see: Wisconsin vs. Cincinnati in a first-round game at Ogden, Utah."Pizza and soda and popcorn and chips were flying all over the place," said former Badgers player Howard Moore, now head coach at Illinois-Chicago. "It was a great moment and a tremendous celebration for everybody."All the work was validated by when you see your school name on that screen and you see where you're going. We didn't care if it was Pluto. I had never heard of Ogden, Utah, before that. We didn't care if it was Siberia. We were just glad to be dancing."Since that time, Wisconsin's basketball program has become a staple on Selection Sunday. The Badgers are considered a lock to qualify for the NCAA Tournament once again when the selections are announced this Sunday, marking the 14th consecutive season they will have advanced to the big dance.But the 1993-94 season is the one most remembered for changing the culture of a Wisconsin program that had been a perennial cellar dweller, even if Jackson, the man behind the transformation, sometimes gets forgotten.A hot startThe building blocks for Wisconsin's rise to national prominence actually began before the Badgers' NCAA Tournament season.Jackson was hired to replace former coach Steve Yoder a year earlier, for the 1992-93 season, and he brought a different swagger to a dormant program. Over the previous 47 seasons, Wisconsin had finished with a losing record 30 times a number that didn't sit well with Jackson."At the time when our staff came to the program, it was a program that didn't have a very good reputation within the Big Ten and certainly not throughout the country," said Jackson, who had coached the New York Knicks from 1989-91. "My expectation was to try to build a program that was sustainable going forward as a winning program, one that had a brand of basketball that was attractive for recruiting. And to change the culture of the program that, at least in my mind, didn't have the mentality for winning."Among his most significant moves was installing an up-tempo offense that perfectly suited the Badgers' players, particularly stars Michael Finley and Tracy Webster, who combined to average 36 points that first season.Although the Badgers didn't make the NCAA Tournament that year, they did qualify for the NIT, losing, 77-73, to Rice in the first round at the UW Field House. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, expectations rose even higher with Finley and Webster returning the following season."I remember how broken up and heartbroken we were as a team in that locker room after the loss to Rice in the NIT at home," Moore said. "All of us as a group just made a vow that we were going to push each other that spring, that summer and the goal was to get to the (NCAA) Tournament that next year."While players strengthened team chemistry by working harder and spending more time together off the court, what helped push Wisconsin over the top was Jackson's ability to recruit top-level talent. His most notable recruiting achievement before the '93-94 season was landing Rashard Griffith, a 6-foot-11 center named Mr. Basketball in Illinois."He just added that inside presence that we needed," Webster said of Griffith. "He was so strong and had so much weight on him that he would wear guys down. He was one of those guys that could dominate a game without even touching a basketball because he demanded attention."With Finley, Webster and Griffith the kind of top recruit nationally that wouldn't even consider Wisconsin in the past leading the way, the Badgers opened the 1993-94 season with 11 consecutive victories and a high-octane offense that eclipsed 100 points four times.On Nov. 22, 1993, Wisconsin entered the Associated Press poll ranked No. 25 in the country, the first time the Badgers had been ranked in the AP poll since January 1976. Wisconsin stumbled down the stretch of conference play, but the Badgers finished the regular season 17-10 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten just good enough to squeak into their first NCAA Tournament since 1947.Tournament hypeMotivation to perform well in the NCAA Tournament wasn't necessary for the Badgers, who already wanted to prove their entrance into the 64-team field was no fluke. But they received an unexpected incentive to showcase their skills when a TV analyst picked against Wisconsin leading up to the first-round game against Cincinnati."Digger Phelps made a bold prediction that the Cincinnati-Missouri game in the second round was going to be a great game," Moore said. "I was like, Wait a minute!' I remember the team really taking that personally and had some choice words for Digger when we went to bed."Webster said the entire team, watching on TV in separate hotel rooms, spilled into the hallway to discuss what they had just seen. "All of a sudden I jumped up like, What did he say?' " said Webster, the team's point guard. "It was amazing because everyone in our hotel came out of the room at the same time like, Did you all hear that?' It focused us a little bit."Determined to make Phelps eat his words, and with Jackson trumpeting the disrespect card, No. 9 seed Wisconsin knocked off No. 8 Cincinnati, 80-72, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament exactly one year to the day of its NIT loss against Rice. Griffith produced a monster game with 22 points and 15 rebounds, and Finley also scored 22 points, including four 3-pointers. "The players, to their credit, were not daunted at all by being in the first NCAA Tournament in 47 years," Jackson said. "They were feeling good about themselves and they thought they could win."The dream season came to an end just two days later, when top-seeded Missouri outgunned Wisconsin, 109-96, in a wildly entertaining second-round game. Finley, who left Wisconsin as the program's all-time leading scorer and ended up playing 15 NBA seasons, tallied a game-high 36 points.Griffith finished with six points, five rebounds and four fouls and played just 16 minutes. As a team, Wisconsin made 15 of 37 3-point tries.The Badgers ended the season 18-11 and averaged 77.9 points per game. It remains the highest-scoring Badgers team in the 3-point era.Lasting impactWisconsin's basketball program has grown significantly in stature since Jackson's brief tenure. The Badgers reached a Final Four under coach Dick Bennett in 2000, and they have been to the NCAA Tournament every year since Bo Ryan took over the program in 2001.Because of those triumphs, former coaches and players say Jackson's two-year stint in charge tends to get lost in the shuffle. He resigned in July 1994 to become vice president and general manager of the Vancouver Grizzlies, helping to build the NBA team from the ground up in its first year of existence, and was replaced by Badgers assistant coach Stan Van Gundy."I think that, for whatever reason, Stu hasn't been given nearly enough credit," said Van Gundy, now the Orlando Magic coach in the NBA. "He's the guy that turned it around. He's the guy that started the winning back and the whole thing. But because he didn't stay for very long, and because of the success the program had afterwards he hasn't gotten the credit that he deserved."Regardless of how much recognition Jackson receives, his players remember him as a coach who dared to change the mindset of a program, making others believe that success was possible. Kilbride said his influence at Wisconsin is immeasurable."When I think about that time period, transformative comes to mind," said Kilbride, who owns a small investment-consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Stu was the leader of that. He absolutely raised the level of expectation of every person in the program. It's remarkable actually when I think about it, how quickly it happened."The impact of that 1993-94 season still is being felt to this day, according to Moore, because it spawned discussions to build a new state-of-the-art basketball arena at a university that had been far behind with its athletic facilities. "Go back to 1990, the athletic department was in the red," Moore said. "I thought that was our school colors, but that's not the situation you want to be in financially. It was a difficult time. I don't think you have the Kohl Center if you don't make that NCAA Tournament run."Wisconsin's crown jewel, the Kohl Center, opened in January 1998 thanks in large part to a 25 million donation from U.S. Senator Herb Kohl. Former Wisconsin basketball player Albert Nicholas and his wife added a 10 million donation for an adjoining practice facility, helping to keep the Badgers' program appealing to potential recruits. Since the Kohl Center opened, winning and an annual invitation to the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday has become commonplace at Wisconsin. But that success is based in no small part to Jackson, the man who helped transform a program and change expectations on a team that once had none. "I think it was a huge milestone and a stepping-stone for the program," Jackson said. "There's no question that was the beginning of something. People in the basketball circles began to look at Wisconsin basketball differently."They have ever since. Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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