While doing some Final Four research, I stumbled across the roster of Wisconsin’s last Final Four team, the 2000 Badgers. Coached by Dick Bennett, that team only finished 8-8 in the Big 10 (good for 6th place) and got “hot” in March, defeating 9th seeded Fresno State (Tark had NBA talent – Courtney Alexander and Melvin Ely), top-seeded Arizona (four future NBA pros in Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton and Loren Woods; hell, even Michael Wright got some burn in the league), 4th-seeded LSU (Stromile Swift and Jabari Smith! I had them getting to the Final Four that year) and then Brian Cardinal’s Purdue Boilermakers in the regional final.
Impressive run, right? Certainly. But then I looked at that Wisconsin roster and … well, here goes:
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* Wisconsin’s leading scorer that year, Mark Vershaw, averaged 11.2 ppg. He was the only Badger to average double figures
* As was the case with most Dick Bennett teams, the ’00 Badgers were sound defensively, but shaky offensively: 66, 66, 61, 64 is what they scored in four NCAA wins. Michigan State held them to 41 in the Final Four
* The ’00 Badgers averaged 59 ppg that season, good for 307th in the country; they permitted only 55 ppg, 4th best. This wasn’t just a case of Wisconsin’s renowned slow pace, either, depressing scoring for an efficient team. The Badgers were 194th in field goal percentage that year.
When looking at Final Four teams from 2000-now, it’s hard to find a worse one than that the 2000 Badgers. I couldn’t find a high-major team in that galaxy, and even the mid-major teams that reached the Final 4 were stronger teams. I tried to jog my memory of the team by scouring You Tube, and even the Badgers’ highlights are bland.
[Note: This year's team is efficient offensively and sound-but-not spectacular at the defensive end. They've scored 73, 85, 69 and 64; they dispatched Top 20 offensive teams Baylor, Oregon and Arizona.]
I’m sure someone will chime in with the 2013 Wichita State Shockers, but they spent most of the season in the Top 25, and had a future NBA player (Cleanthony Early, who will be drafted this June). One could argue they had a soft road to the Final Four – beat a bad Pittsburgh team, Gonzaga was an overrated 1-seed, and LaSalle wasn’t very good – but the Shockers did lead Louisville by 12 in the second half before collapsing in the Final Four.
The 2011 VCU Rams? I’ll poke holes in them before you can: Beat Georgetown (history of March collapses under JT3), crushed a Purdue team with two NBA draft picks, nipped Florida State by one, and then destroyed 35-2 Kansas in a shocking regional final (12-of-25 from deep will get it done). Shaka Smart became the new “It” coach in college basketball, and he’s linked to job openings every year in late March/early April. The Rams were a joy to watch, applying a full court press and hoisting three-pointers with reckless abandon. And don’t forget, Jay Bilas said they shouldn’t have been in the tournament! A true Cinderella.
Which brings us to the 2006 George Mason Patriots. Only ranked for one week during the season, the Patriots didn’t even win the CAA Tournament. Then-CBS analyst Billy Packer hammered GMU after selection Sunday. Then the Patriots defeated college hoops royalty, Michigan State and defending champ North Carolina. A meeting between GMU and Connecticut in the Elite 8 was memorable – and not just because I got an allergic reaction to sushi during the game – but because it was a colossal upset. The Patriots lost to eventual-champ Florida in the Final Four. Like the 2000 Badgers, the Patriots had no future pros, but they did have one major difference – they could at least score. Five players averaged in double figures.