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Badgers keep old-schooling opponents

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- You bring the ball up the court. You pass it. You cut around the screen. You pick, you roll. You rotate. You flash to the wing. You run a back door. You wheel around. You set up. You dribble. You cut to the basket.

And just like that, there you are.

In 1957.

For Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, of course, it is always 1957. Ozzie and Harriet is always on television, and Ike is in the White House and, by the way, have you heard this new song from Pat Boone? In Mr. Bennett's neighborhood, there are picket fences and porch swings and kids who hang out at the malt shop.

This is what it is like to coach basketball in Pleasantville. You play defense and you set picks and take your time which, it turns out, was a few decades ago. You play a stone-age offense that is so ugly it makes other people's faces hurt to watch it, and you laugh when the other team grumbles about it.

Such is the situation that looms at the Final Four. For goodness' sake, Dick Bennett and his Wisconsin Badgers are threatening to put the Final Four in a time warp.

This is what they want to do. They want to slow it down. They want to spin it 'round. They want to pass the ball about 19 times for every time they shoot it. They want to fluster and pester and hover until the opponent, Michigan State and beyond, has played as ugly as the Badgers.

And the way Bennett figures it, what's wrong with that?

Yesterday's coach walks stiffly down a corridor of the RCA Dome, his new artificial hips do little to disguise the 57 years of the owner. For 35 years, it seems, Bennett has been walking toward this thing called the Final Four, and finally he has arrived.

You wonder: Can a coach such as Billy Donovan -- who is, what, 16? -- really appreciate being here as much as someone such as Bennett? Can anyone? For most of Bennett's career, spent on benches of every hyphenated school in Wisconsin, this has been a dream beyond his grasp. He spent more than a decade coaching in high school, then a decade at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, then Wisconsin-Green Bay, then the University of Wisconsin (in terms of service, Bennett ranks somewhere between cheddar and Colby in the history of the state). Oh, his teams have made the NCAA before, and they've even had a few moments. But never has he reached this level. Never has he coached a game in April.

"It wasn't going to be the end of things if we didn't get here," Bennett said. "I haven't done a lot of things I would have liked to have done. But, when you spend a lifetime in one profession, doing one thing, and you've gotten just a sniff of it -- not a taste, but a sniff -- it becomes more appealing. You feel it when you're sitting there watching the tournament unfold and all of the excitement. You think, just once I'd like to experience that. And you tell yourself you want it for your kids, and that's the truth, but you want it for yourself, too.

"So when it does happen, you'd like to stop right there and take a month to cherish this. But it doesn't work that way, so you have to store up some of the feelings and memories and take them with you. And I think, when it happens late in your career, it's even better, because you'll get to those memories sooner."

The popular notion, of course, is that you can't get here from there. Not when you play a deliberate style, not when you have to sell sacrifice and teamwork to today's kids. For most of us, Bennettball went out with Hula Hoop.

But not in Madison. Not under Bennett's watch.

He is not just old school, he is older-than-that school. He quotes Vince Lombardi still. He calls his screeners "blockers." And he will swear to you, absolutely swear, that he prefers attitude over ability.

And, somehow, it has worked for the Badgers. Oh, not all the time. Wisconsin was 13-12 at one point, and people were starting to wonder if Bennett could recruit players of a video-game nation to an attack that seemed, well, dull.

But Wisconsin went on a late-season surge and sneaked into the tournament as an eighth seed. The Badgers beat Fresno State, then knocked off No. 1 seed Arizona, then beat LSU, then beat Purdue. Now they play, yet again, Michigan State, which has beaten them three times this season.

All of which has people comparing the Badgers to Villanova (which knocked off Georgetown in a similar situation in '85). Or, perhaps, the movie Hoosiers.

You keep hearing the comparison: an overachieving bunch led by a conservative coach knocking off higher-regarded teams. Wednesday, the Badgers even practiced at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the final games of the movie were filmed.

"I've seen the movie," Bennett said, grinning. "At least 17 or 18 times. I had a copy. Someone took it. Probably a media guy. We practiced at Hinkle yesterday. I didn't get the ladder out, but I eyeballed the rim, and it was 10 feet. The only thing I would say is synonymous, I have an assistant coach like he had (a drunk played by Dennis Hopper). I'll let you figure out that one."

Bennett smiles. Shrugs.

"But you know, that was a high school setting. I think the basketball world at the college level has grown smaller. I think there's less difference in the haves and have-nots."

Could his team win it? It would take a staggering upset over Michigan State, a milder one in the championship. Bennett ponders the possibility and shakes his head. Yes, he admits, there might be a temptation to call it a career if that happened. There have been so many games, so many practices. What could feel better?

Two games, and time stands still. Two games, and Chevys have big fins again, and we all meet at the malt shop.

Because when you think about it, 1957 really was a good year.

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