MADISON, Wis. — When Traevon Jackson and Sam Dekker weren’t on the court together this offseason, they talked often about changing the expectations and culture of Wisconsin’s basketball program. For a team that has made 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments and never finished below fourth in the Big Ten under coach Bo Ryan, you might wonder what needed to be changed.
But, according to Jackson and Dekker, they had decided that simply being consistently good wasn’t good enough. In order to truly change, they needed to raise their own standards and create an expectation for championships. So confident were they that each was willing to share those views publicly even before games began.
“We’ve got higher expectations for ourselves,” Jackson reiterated after Mondays’ practice. “We came in this year saying why not? Why can’t we do these things? Why is it that we always have to have a peak or why do we have to settle for less?”
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Ten games into the season, that talk is looking awfully prophetic.
In the span of just four weeks, Wisconsin has jumped from No. 20 in the weekly Associated Press top 25 poll to a new season high of No. 4 on Monday. Wisconsin, off to a 10-0 start, is just one victory away from tying the all-time program record for wins to begin a season, which was set 20 years ago.
The Badgers leapt four spots in the poll this week after knocking off Virginia and Marquette last Wednesday and Saturday. It marks the first time Wisconsin has been ranked inside the top 5 since the week of March 5-11, 2007.
Slowly, the national perception of what this Wisconsin team is capable of appears to be changing. And the Badgers aren’t shying from the spotlight.
“We wanted to shoot to be the best,” Jackson said. “No. 4 is great, but it’s still not No. 1.”
Only Arizona, Syracuse and Ohio State are ranked ahead of Wisconsin. Michigan State, which was ranked No. 1 until a loss last week to North Carolina, dropped to No. 5. And the fact Wisconsin is ranked so highly is a scenario that already is causing quite a stir on campus.
“Today, I heard a couple people say congrats on the new rankings,” Dekker said. “It’s very cool to see your students and your classmates recognizing the hard work that you put in. We do it for them, too. We’re trying to bring a basketball tradition to this school. We have a lot of pride in filling up this great arena and putting Madison on the map.”
Wisconsin has reached this point behind the strength of a tremendously balanced starting lineup. All five starters are averaging double figures in scoring, and the Badgers’ points-per-game average of 73.2 is the highest in any season under Ryan.
Despite the hot start, Badgers guard Josh Gasser said it was important to recognize 10 games does not make a season. The goals that were put forth before the year are nowhere near coming to fruition. Three games still remain in the nonconference season, starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday against an improving Milwaukee (9-2) team that has won five consecutive games.
“Hearing that we’re top five in the country right now, you’ve got to be proud of it,” Gasser said. “It’s something that you see in this day and age with social media and all that stuff. But at the same time, it’s December. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot. If we get complacent, if we don’t keep working hard, we’re going to go downhill and we’re not going to reach our goals.
“All our goals that we’re trying to achieve are going to come in March and February, Big Ten title and all that. At this point, it’s cool to hear. It is. Personally, it’s really cool to be part of. But at the same time, it means really nothing.”
Though none of the current crop of Badgers players has ever been on a team ranked this high, Ryan has. Two of his three national championship teams at Division III UW-Platteville finished the season undefeated, which he said taught him the value of managing players and expectations.
Ryan’s philosophy over the years has never changed, and his ability to focus his teams only on the next game has been vital to Wisconsin’s start this season, players said.
“I think that rubs off of how coach handles things,” Dekker said. “He’s taught that to us. He’s instilled that in us that I think we all have a different type of personality that we bring to this team that we can all use something we have in certain scenarios so that we don’t all go under. We handle things very well as a team, and I think this is another thing we’ll be able to handle.”
In the history of the AP poll, which began in 1949, Wisconsin had been ranked in the top five for a total of 12 weeks before Monday. All 12 of those weeks came during the 2006-07 season, when the Badgers climbed to as high as No. 1 in the Feb. 19, 2007 poll. Wisconsin promptly lost at Michigan State and at Ohio State that week, serving as a reminder of how quickly things can change.
Ryan mentioned he still had a copy of the newspaper detailing the team’s rise to No. 1 in the country that season.
“That lasted a long time,” Ryan said. “Seven days.”
During Ryan’s first 12 years in charge at Wisconsin, the Badgers have won or shared the Big Ten regular season title three times.
They have never made it past the Sweet 16 in those seasons and have advanced to the Elite Eight just once in any year. During that memorable 2006-07 season, Wisconsin did not even advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This year’s team appears to have both the talent and mindset to make a run at Ryan’s first Final Four appearance. But right now, it’s December. And Ryan is quick to remind his players that the next game is the only one that matters.
“That’s all we’ll talk about,” Ryan said. “Now, what they talk about in the locker room and on campus or anything else, I just hope they understand that they’ve done some things that put them in this position, that they’ve been successful.
“You have to deal with that, but everybody’s going to come at us the same way. Everybody’s going to want to, even more so, try to get a piece of the Badgers.”