(This is written prior to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game being played in Indianapolis.)
I am a mess – nervous, edgy – a certifiable basket case. I have the Basketball Jones, addicted to the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team coached by Bo Ryan. I have worn UW red everyday since March 1st – alternating two red Badger hats, two Badger sweatshirts, a red Badger pullover and three other red Badger t-shirts for my daily attire. A red Badger Motion W flag adorns my car. In the coaching parlance, I am a Badger Basketball Benny gone ballistic and bonkers, as UW has advanced to the NCAA Championship game.
I have been going to Badger games at the Kohl Center for over a decade. Bob Stirn, who was superintendent for the La Farge School District for a number of years, had Badger season tickets and we started going to some of the games together in the 2002-03 season. Eventually, after Bob had retired and started wintering in Florida, I bought his season tickets for the Badger basketball games. We sat in those seats in Section 220 of the Kohl Center for a number of years. Those seats looked right down on the Badger student sections, the Grateful Red, as they are sometimes called. Sometimes watching the student section and the UW Pep Band was more entertaining than watching the basketball team play. For the last two years we had seats in Section 223, which is on the same side as our previous seats, but behind the Badgers bench.
The 2013-14 Badger basketball season was interesting in that the team started the season with a long winning streak, which led to a high national rating of #3 in week-11 of the season. Then they hit a really rough patch in January in the beginning of the Big 10 season, losing five of six games. That string of losses would cost them any chance at winning the conference title, but they again started playing well in the back half of the conference schedule and finished tied for second in the Big 10. With a 26-7 season record, Wisconsin was awarded a #2-seed in the NCAA tournament and started their tourney run at the fan friendly Bradley Center in Milwaukee. After demolishing American by a score of 75-35 in the NCAA opener, UW found themselves in peril in their second game against Oregon. Trailing by twelve at the half, Wisconsin put on a furious second half rally fueled by the huge home-state fan support to outscore the Ducks by 20 on their way to a 85-77 thrilling win.
The Oregon comeback introduced the country to an emerging star for the Badgers – Frank Kaminsky. The 7-foot junior center led the Badgers with 19 points and 10 rebounds and set the stage for his true coming-out party at Anaheim the next weekend in the NCAA Regional games. In the semi-final game, UW dismantled a good Baylor team as Kaminsky again led the Badgers with 19 points and 10 rebounds. More extraordinary was Kaminsky’s passing as the Badgers sliced up Baylor’s vaunted zone defense. In the Elite-8 regional final game, Kaminsky played a remarkable game, scoring 28 points and recording another double-double to lead the Badgers to a pulsating 64-63 overtime win over #1 seed Arizona. “Frank The Tank” had led the Badgers to the Final 4!
As we all know, Wisconsin lost in that first game of the Final 4, falling 74-73 to Kentucky on a last second shot. UW finished 30-8 for the year and ranked #4 in the final coach’s national poll. But more importantly, that Badger team laid the groundwork for this year’s amazing season. Of the nine-man rotation used by Coach Ryan in that magical run to the Final 4 in March of 2014, only Ben Brust was a graduating senior. When Kaminsky announced a month after the end of the season that he would forego the NBA draft and return for his senior season at UW, the stage was set for this year’s magical season.
The Duke Blue Devils came to the Kohl Center to play Bo’s Boys on December 3, 2014. It was a battle of college basketball heavyweights and one of the most anticipated games in Badger basketball history. Courtside seats were being scalped for thousands of dollars per pair on Stub Hub. Tickets in Section 223 were valued at anywhere from $250 to $350 per seat. Watching the game, I was seated beside three rabid Duke fans clad in their colors.
It was a great college basketball game, fiercely fought from beginning to end. Duke led most of the way and near the end of the game, the Duke fan seated beside me turned and said that the game felt like a Final 4 game. He was right because the level of talent and the intensity of play were first class all the way. The ten-point victory margin, 80-70, for Duke was a testament to their outstanding shooting and ability to penetrate to the basket. For the next week, I told everyone who would listen that I wished the Badgers would get to play Duke again.
Duke shot 65% from the field in that game! That is an outstanding, almost unheard of shooting percentage for a college game. My thinking is that nobody can shoot 65% in a game like that – for crying out loud, you can put most college teams on the floor with nobody guarding them and they could not shoot that percentage! Could they ever do that again if they played the Badgers?
Wisconsin on the other hand missed an inordinate amount of shots in the paint in the Duke game, especially in the crucial points of the second half. The Badgers magnificent front line never could get going in that Duke game. Frank Kaminsky did not score in double figures nor did he rebound in double figures either – a rarity for a player who would lead his team in both categories for the season. Sam Dekker, the 6’9” Badger forward was still nursing a sprained ankle and was a non-factor in the game. Traevon Jackson had a remarkable offensive game to score 25 points, but could not will Wisconsin to victory over the Blue Devils.
From that point on, the Badgers front line of Kaminsky, Dekker and 6’8” forward Nigel Hayes would dominate their opponents. UW would win every game they played except for road losses to a bad Rutgers team (Kaminsky did not play due to a head injury and Jackson broke his foot and would miss the next nineteen games.) and a good Maryland bunch. On March 1, the Badgers clinched a share of the Big 10 championship in their final home game by defeating a very good Michigan State team, 68-61. On that Senior Day at the Kohl Center, Kaminsky was magnificent for the Badgers, scoring 31 points and dominating play on both ends of the court. After the game was concluded, nobody would leave the arena as Badger fans stayed to watch the presentation of the Big 10 trophy, the Senior videos played on the scoreboard video panels and the team and Coach Ryan cutting down the nets. (Two more road wins at Minnesota and Ohio State the following week guaranteed the Badgers would not share the conference trophy with another team. Maryland would finish second, two games behind the Badgers.)
I began to wear the colors on that first day of March. From that time until now, the day of the NCAA final game, I have sported Badger Red each and every day. Bo’s Boys would go on to win the Big 10 Tournament held in Chicago. After their scintillating overtime victory over Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans in the championship game of that conference tournament, Wisconsin was awarded a #1 seed for the NCAA Men’s Tournament.
March Madness was upon us again. I filled out my bracket, dutifully plotting the Badgers, Kentucky, Michigan State and Duke through to the Final 4. I still wanted the Badgers to have another shot at the Blue Devils. I continued to wear the Badger Red.
Two victories over Coastal Carolina and Oregon in NCAA games played in Omaha led Bo’s Boys back to Los Angeles for the Regional Finals. North Carolina fell to the Big Red in the Sweet 16 game played at the Staples Center as Sam Dekker led with a double-double of 23 points and 10 rebounds in the 79-72 win. In the Elite 8 regional final, the Badgers outscored Arizona to win 85-78. Dekker was named the Regional’s MVP and Nigel Hayes wowed the country with his play and vocal elocution. Frank The Tank was on ESPN’s SportsCenter and interviewed Will Farrell, the original Frank The Tank. I sported Badger Red each and every day on the way back to the Final 4.
On to Indy – Frank The Tank is named Player of the Year – Down goes undefeated Kentucky as Bucky shocks the nation with their play and toughness. The 71-64 win was formed when Dekker took over late to get Bucky the lead and secured when Bronson Koenig swished in the clinching free throws. The Badgers will play Duke in the final game. I won my bracket – I got my wish for the rematch with the Blue Devils – I wear the Badger Red.
(This was written after the game.)
Be careful what you wish for!