MADISON, Wis. — To understand how difficult it was to escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this year, just look at the Dukes, Syracuses and Kansases of the world. Top-10 programs, stellar seasons and not even a Sweet 16 appearance to show for it.
When viewed through that prism, Wisconsin’s run to the Sweet 16 — its third such appearance in the past four seasons — should speak to the team’s consistency and toughness, as parity takes over college basketball. And the fact No. 2 seed Wisconsin has made it this far, to face No. 6 seed Baylor on Thursday at 6:47 p.m. CT in Anaheim, Calif., is not lost on Badgers players.
"I know you kind of just throw around the term Sweet 16. That’s just a cliche term," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said this week. "A term that’s used all over the place. But when you really think about it, only 16 teams are actually left. That’s not a big number in comparison to the 68 and then the however many hundred are in regular D-I basketball. To think only 16 teams made it this far, it kind of puts it into perspective of how tough it was to get here and how special it’s been."
Dekker then added: "We’re not content yet where we’re at. We want to keep on going and get more."
Achieving that task has not come so easily under head coach Bo Ryan, who has yet to reach a Final Four in his first 12 seasons at Wisconsin and only once has led a team to the Elite Eight. That team came back in 2005, when Wisconsin lost, 88-82, against eventual national champion North Carolina.
Ryan is 18-12 in NCAA tournament games, a winning percentage of .600, which ranks tied for 19th among active college coaches. But 14 of those coaches also have reached at least one Final Four.
Players are doing their best to stay in the moment and not contemplate the importance of Ryan and Wisconsin’s program reaching the next level.
"I think anytime you start looking ahead, you get yourself in trouble," Badgers guard Ben Brust said. "Right now our focus is Baylor. Just the next game at hand. If you take care of business, the rest of the stuff just comes with it. So staying with the task at hand is important for us."
While players are trying to avoid outside distractions, Badgers fans no doubt will judge the success of this season based, in part, on how far Wisconsin can go in the NCAA tournament. The more Wisconsin has achieved — 16 straight wins to start a season, eight straight conference victories, the highest-scoring Badgers team in decades — the more expectations continue to grow.
And while a Final Four appearance likely means more to Ryan that he would ever let on, he, too, is focused only on the next 40 minutes.
"Right now, what our guys are doing is trying to live in the moment," Ryan said. "They respect the past, but this is their time. They’re trying to get ready for the experience. They’re living in the precious present. So I’m not going to compare them to any other team. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about their time right now. And let’s see what they can do with it. I’m just thankful they’re taking me with them. I get to go."
Austin stands out: Badgers players were asked about the performance of Baylor center Isaiah Austin, who ranks seventh in the country in blocked shots per game. They also were asked to assess how Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky would match up against him.
"Isaiah Austin has been blocking shots his whole life," Dekker said. "He’s always been the tallest kid on the court with the longest arms. He’s a good shot blocker. He’s going to go after it. Frank is one of the best pump-faking, footwork, finesse players that I think I’ve ever played with easily. When you can use those moves in there and kind of confuse some guys with some moves that are pretty unorthodox, I think Frank can use that to his advantage."
Kaminsky, meanwhile, said trying to induce foul trouble on Austin would be key. During Wisconsin’s 85-77 victory against Oregon in the Round of 32, he noted Ducks big man Mike Moser picked up two early fouls and was forced to spend time on the bench.
"He’s one of the longest players that we’ll play against," Kaminsky said of Austin. "He probably has like, what an 8-foot wingspan or something like that? I don’t know. He’s a good player. He’s a good defensive player. He’s got those long arms and he moves well. On offense, he’s able to get a bunch of stuff because of his height, and hopefully we can neutralize that."
Uniform talk: Ryan slid in a few jokes at the expense of Baylor’s uniforms, which have drawn criticism over the past few years for being unusually bright. The school has six designs to choose from, which include an especially eye-catching neon yellow.
"I told Nigel (Hayes) I forgot the sunglasses," Ryan said. "He looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about, coach?’ I said I had a box of sunglasses that we were going to wear for the game in case they had those highlighted uniforms. He got it. He chuckled."