ANAHEIM, Calif. — In a tournament filled with games where the viewer actually felt guilty one team had to lose (think Wichita State-Kentucky, Iowa State-North Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville), Saturday’s West Regional Final between Wisconsin and Arizona may have taken the cake as the best of them all.
Simply put, Wisconsin-Arizona had it all: It featured ferociously competitive teams, neither willing to give the other one an inch, or give up a win. It had two groups of players who left just about everything they had on the court. It had crisp (if not always flawless) offense, raw, unrelenting defense, and two coaching giants fighting for their first trip to college basketball’s “Promised Land.” Not to mention a wild ending, where Arizona got two chances to topple the Badgers, and came up a bit short in each case.
Yes, Wisconsin’s 64-63 overtime win over Arizona was that good, ultimately, everything that makes college basketball so truly fantastic, especially at this time of year.
Yet for what it provided, now that it’s over, it also leaves us with one very real reality: We have one team in the Final Four no one expected.
OK, so maybe it’s not fair to call a 30-win Wisconsin team which finished second in the Big Ten regular-season standings and did enough to snatch a two-seed a "Final Four surprise." But in a season where all the talk has been on Florida and Arizona, and even internally in the Big Ten on Michigan and Michigan State (four teams the Badgers have beaten this season by the way), it was easy to overlook Wisconsin entering this tournament. Heck, it was easy to overlook them coming into Saturday.
Well, overlook no more. The dust has settled, the ravenous crowd has left the building and the result is final: Wisconsin is headed to the Final Four.
So what do you need to know about the latest and greatest incarnation of Bo Ryan’s Badgers? Here is a Newcomer’s Guide to the Wisconsin Badgers:
So who’s their star?
I mean, did you watch Saturday’s game?
The obvious answer is center Frank Kaminsky. Much like his team, we didn’t enter the tournament talking about Kaminsky. But while most of the bigger names will be watching the Final Four from home, Kaminsky and his team will be playing on college basketball’s final weekend.
So why did so few know about him until his 28-point performance Saturday night? Up until this season he didn’t play much, averaging just 13 minutes a game in 2012-13. But boy, has he blossomed.
“He’s growing into his body mentally, physically, socially,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “They tell me he’s funnier than he used to be too.”
Whether or not Kaminsky evolves into the next Chris Rock, one simple truth is that the Badgers wouldn’t be headed to Dallas without him. For whatever he lacks on the surface (elite athleticism, raw power), he makes up for it once the ball is thrown in the air.
He’s a center who can bang down low, but also stretch the floor like a small forward: Kaminsky led Wisconsin in both 3-pointers made Saturday (three) as well as rebounds (10). And the latter may have been the most impressive part. In a matchup with three guys who could play in the NBA (Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson), Kaminsky was the best player in the post and the best player on the floor.
“He was a beast,” teammate Ben Brust put it succinctly.
It wasn’t just so much about the stats Kaminsky put up, but rather the significance of them. It seemed that every time the Badgers needed a play, it was their 7-foot center who provided it.
He nailed a three to tie it at 34 early in the second half, the first time all game that it really felt like, "Wow, the Badgers have a chance."
He hit another three for a 50-48 lead near the end of regulation. And once it went to overtime, he was simply spectacular. Give him credit for a hockey assist on Brust’s three to open the period (the pass before the pass that set up the bucket) and then he scored six points over the remainder of the period.
You may have not heard much of Kaminsky before this weekend. But there’s little doubt you know him now.
If Kaminsky is the star, who else do I need to know?
Well, there are fellow starters Brust, Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser, but the guy who stands out is point guard Traevon Jackson. Kaminsky may have had the hot hand Saturday, but Jackson played a nice Robin to his Batman, as the only other Badger to score in double figures (10 points), to go along with five assists and just two turnovers.
For those who haven’t watched much of the Badgers this season, the best way to describe Jackson is as a "bulldog." He doesn’t quite seem to be the 6-foot-2 that he’s listed, but plays so much bigger. He’s the one who makes the Badgers go, the one guy who routinely got into the lane against Arizona, and who drove at their bigs without fear.
Jackson may have not had a great game statistically (shooting just 4-of-14 from the field), but he controlled the game from start to finish on the offensive end for the Badgers. Outside of Kaminsky, there’s no bigger reason the Badgers are headed to Dallas than this guy.
Who is the one guy nobody will talk about who deserves a bunch of credit?
How about a young fella named Bronson Koenig? Never heard of him? In your defense, I doubt half the Badgers fans in attendance Saturday had before tip-off. Yet, more than anyone, Koenig symbolized what Wisconsin was "about" on Saturday.
Now if you’re looking at the stat sheet to try and find Koenig’s name, don’t bother. He finished with a pedestrian five points, three boards and an assist. But sitting courtside and watching his demeanor showed you so much more, and like Kaminsky, when the ball was tipped, there was just something about him you couldn’t take your eyes off of. Every time he touched the ball, every time he moved it up court, he played with the swagger of someone who not only wanted to be on the stage, but felt like he belonged there.
The best example I can give is his match-up with Hollis-Jefferson. Understand that Hollis-Jefferson is the McDonald’s All-American and the one with the NBA future, yet Koenig went at him like the two were brothers playing in the backyard. He not only refused to back down, but seemed to relish the opportunity.
Forget “relish.” He owned it.
“I always try to play with as much confidence as I can,” Koenig said when asked about the match-up after the game. “I know he (Hollis-Jefferson) is 6-7, big and strong. But I know I’m quicker than him and felt like I could get to my pull-up (jumper).”
Outside of winning the West Region, what was the most exciting part of the Badgers’ trip to Anaheim?
Anyone hear there was a little earthquake in Anaheim on Friday night? As much as anything that happened on the basketball court Saturday, it’s a moment neither players nor coach will soon forget.
“It was kind of funny, I was actually sitting and watching the basketball game,” senior Zach Bohannon said of the experience. “It was Frank Kaminsky sitting between the beds, and Zak Showalter sitting on the other bed. We just kind of said, ‘What’s going on upstairs?’ We were on the seventh floor.”
“And then we were like, ‘Oh no, that’s an earthquake! We just sat and experienced, let it rock. It was kind of a cool experience.”
Know who didn’t think it was nearly as cool? Bo Ryan.
“I did say to Craig Sager at halftime that after the earthquake last night, you never know when it’s going to be your last game coaching,” Ryan joked.
Well Coach, good news. Saturday didn’t end up as your last game coaching. There’s at least one more still on the schedule.
All right, let’s get to the fun stuff: Does Wisconsin have celebrity fans? Kentucky has Ashley Judd. Michigan State has Magic Johnson. What about the Badgers?
Well, up until about a week ago, the short answer would’ve been, "Yes, the Badgers definitely have a celebrity fan. His name is Andy North." The two-time US Open champion golfer from Wisconsin is seen quite often on the sidelines of the Badgers biggest games.
Of course over the last few weeks, North has been trumped by quite possibly the most famous man in Wisconsin: Aaron Rodgers.
I’m not sure totally when Rodgers burst onto the scene as a Badgers die-hard, but he was definitely with the team following a Sweet 16 victory Thursday, and was right back at it in Anaheim Saturday. Rodgers was seen outside the Badgers locker room immediately following the victory, before being let in briefly to address the team prior to media availability.
So what did Rodgers say? Not much actually, at least according to Bohannon.
Aaron Rodgers shows his support for the Badgers
“Coach Ryan called us all together and he kind of came around and snuck in,” Bohannon said. “I saw right when he walked in and I said, ‘Hold on coach, we gotta get him in here.’ Coach said, ‘There’s our good luck charm!’”
When Rodgers did speak, his message was direct and to the point.
No one knows. But North? Well, there’s no doubt about it.
“I’ll be there,” North said with a smile Saturday, as his good friend Ryan cut down the nets in Anaheim.
Speaking of Ryan…
What was the underlying story of the Badgers’ victory?
Well the obvious one is the fact that after all this time, Ryan has his first trip to the Final Four. Understand this is a guy that has literally done just about everything else a college basketball coach can; he’s won titles at the DIII level, been to the tournament every year he’s been in Madison and gone to the second weekend six out of 13 times.
Yet finally, he is headed to college basketball’s biggest stage. Even if he doesn’t think it’s a particularly big deal.
“I’m still the same guy I was three hours ago before this game started,” Ryan said in his postgame press conference. “All that and all this about a coach has to do this, or a coach has to do that, I chuckle.”
Still his players couldn’t help but get excited for the man they call "The Silver Badger."
“It’s very special to be able to do it with my teammates here, and for Coach Ryan,” Brust said.
But really, there was something about Saturday specifically, which was even bigger than just a Final Four trip: It would’ve been the 90th birthday of Ryan’s father Butch, who passed away last summer. Understand that Butch wasn’t just a dad, but an icon in the program. He was Bo’s constant companion at the Final Four, and a man who was so close to Wisconsin’s players that some actually flew out to his funeral following his passing to pay their respects.
“We knew that coach has been there to the Final Four for 30-some-odd years with his dad,” Bohannon said. “We knew that his Pops — Butch — will be looking down upon us any way that he can.”
So why exactly should I believe in the Badgers going forward?
Why not? As mentioned at the top, it’s hard to think of any team with a more impressive slew of wins than the Badgers have had this season. They’re one of only two teams to beat Florida. They beat Arizona in what amounted to a road game Saturday. And they have taken down both Michigan and Michigan State, two clubs which can punch their tickets to Dallas Sunday.
“We played on the road. We played at neutral sites. We played at home against Top 25 teams in the country,” Brust said. “So we know that we’re going to go out there and battle.”
Put a different way, this Wisconsin team has an edge to it.
That’s because for whatever preconceived notions you might have them, to be blunt, this team is different. Don’t say "they’re not athletic"; they took all of Arizona’s best shots Saturday and came out on top. Don’t say they’re not tough; not only did they survive a harsh Big Ten schedule, they banged bodies for 45 brutal minutes Saturday with the Wildcats. And they’re clearly talented; you don’t get to the Final Four by accident.
“We don’t really care what people think of us,” guard John Gasser said. “Our record, our wins, it speaks for themselves.”