Badgers feted for Final Four run then start new path with convincing victory

The Wisconsin basketball team watches as a commemorative banner honoring the team's trip to the 2014 Final Four is raised to the ceiling at the Kohl Center before Friday's season-opening matchup with Northern Kentucky.

Andy Manis/AP

MADISON, Wis. — The basketball season many Wisconsin fans have waited more than seven months for arrived in style Friday night, with a packed house, a ring ceremony and the raising of a Final Four banner. It was a sight to behold, the darkened Kohl Center illuminated only by whirling spotlights, one more opportunity to revel in last year’s success.

The type of excitement that team provided, after all, does not happen every season in these parts. And everyone on campus, it seemed, wanted to remind players and congratulate them for bringing so much joy since that magical NCAA tournament ride into April.

Players, on the other hand, were ready to move forward, even as the rest of the arena looked back. There is a new season to play with new goals and realistic visions of reaching a national championship game. And the Badgers made their first statement of 2014-15 in grand fashion.

No. 3 Wisconsin obliterated Northern Kentucky, 62-31, Friday night at the Kohl Center in the regular-season opener in front of 17,279 fans. Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, who many predict as a first-team all-American, provided validation to that claim. He led the team in points (16), rebounds (11) and even assists (four). Forward Sam Dekker joined Kaminsky in double figures with 15 points, and Wisconsin tied for the fewest points allowed in head coach Bo Ryan’s 14-year tenure.

"I’ve watched every one of their games from last year the last week," Northern Kentucky coach Dave Bezold said. "You think you’re right there in the first half. Next thing you do, you look up, they’re up by 30 and you’re like, ‘How’d that happen?’ They just methodically take you apart."

The season opener went about as one might expect for a unanimous preseason Big Ten favorite against a team that finished 9-21 one year earlier and is still in the process of transitioning into a full-fledged Division I program. But before the on-court destruction took place, Wisconsin was honored for its 30-8 season that culminated with the program’s first Final Four appearance in 14 years.

Badgers players and coaches received Final Four rings one-by-one at center court, and former players Zach Bohannon and Evan Anderson were in attendance. Former guard Ben Brust, who is playing basketball professionally overseas, then introduced a brief highlight reel that played on the Jumbrotron above the arena.

Finally, the Final Four banner was raised to the rafters, alongside the 2000 Final Four banner and that of the 1941 team, which captured a national championship. All the while, fans cheered wildly, which included a student section that filled to the top of the third tier — a rarity for a Badgers basketball game in mid-November.

"After that first video, that little tribute, which was cool, I said to Josh (Gasser), ‘Thank goodness we got this preseason stuff out of the way,’" Dekker said. "The hype is good. People talking about us is cool, it’s fun. But at some point, you’ve got to turn the page from last year. I think after that, everyone just came back down to earth."

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Added Ryan: "For the players, they were pretty excited. They felt the warmth from the fans. It was nice that the fans came early and were ready to honor those guys. . . .

"But as soon as we went back to that locker room, it was, ‘Let’s get ready. Let’s match up, let’s stick to the scouting report and let’s do our thing.’ But it was neat, especially for the players and the fans, between the two of them."

Once the game began, Wisconsin demonstrated why all the preseason hype was warranted. Northern Kentucky brought the score to within 21-15 on a layup from Daniel Camps, but the Norse did not score over the final five minutes of the first half. Wisconsin completely dominated the final 25 minutes and made the opener a laugher.

There were plenty of encouraging signs for Wisconsin (1-0). Northern Kentucky shot a measly 14 of 53 from the field (26.4 percent). And only a Jordan Garrett three-point play with 17 seconds remaining prevented the Badgers from setting a new modern-era record for fewest points allowed in a game.

Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes earned his first start and recorded a career high for rebounds with 10. He tallied seven rebounds in the first half alone, which surpassed his previous best of six, which he registered five times last season.

"Our assistant coach, coach (Gary) Close, always gave me a hard time about it last year," Hayes said. "Telling me I was a terrible rebounder, worst rebounder in the country, etc. So this year going around, (I) wanted to make improvements everywhere, and rebounding was one of those. I felt like I got off to a good start. I still missed a couple out there, he told me. But I would say it’s a pretty good start for the first game."

Meanwhile, sophomore forward Vitto Brown was solid and made his most significant contribution in a Wisconsin uniform. He scored a career-best seven points with four rebounds in 14 minutes. Brown has beaten out freshman forward Ethan Happ for the team’s last frontcourt rotation piece. Happ sat out Friday’s game while he decided whether to take a redshirt year.

And then there was Kaminsky, the Badgers’ 7-footer, who was five inches taller than any player on Northern Kentucky’s roster. The preseason Big Ten player of the year and centerpiece to this year’s team tallied two dunks in the first 11 minutes, including a half-court alley-oop pass from Dekker to give Wisconsin an 18-6 lead. In the second half, he nearly faked Norse forward Jake Giesler out of his shorts on a drive to the lane with a Hakeem Olajuwon-style dream shake. Kaminsky finished 7 of 12 from the field, though he connected on only 1 of 5 3-point attempts.

All in all, it was exactly the type of opener Kaminsky and the Badgers needed to put the past behind them and ready themselves for another potentially special season.

"It’s a pretty good start," Kaminsky said. "I’m proud of our defense, holding them to 31 points. It’s just good to get everyone in the game and start the season off on the right foot."

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