Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Last season, they were the new kids on the block so to speak, but this time around the Wisconsin Badgers have more than earned their place among college basketball's elite as the Final Four descends upon Indianapolis.
A year ago, the Badgers and head coach Bo Ryan were raising more than a few eyebrows with their inclusion in one of the biggest spectacles of sports, but rather than being a pleasant surprise in 2014-15, Wisconsin was expected to be one of the last teams standing.
There are a couple of similarities between this year's crew from Madison and the one that thrilled Cheeseheads the land over last season when they traveled to Arlington, Texas. In order to get the invite to Lucas Oil Stadium in the Hoosier State, Wisconsin had to again defeat the Arizona Wildcats in an Elite Eight matchup, but this time around the team didn't have to squeak out a one- point decision in overtime. No, this time the Badgers showed that they had learned a thing or two in almost a full year's time, taking out Arizona in an 85-78 final.
Wisconsin, which is a top seed from the West Region, will again face off against the Kentucky Wildcats, a team that slipped by in a 74-73 decision in the previous meeting. Kentucky, which eventually lost to an upstart UConn group in the title game, is now considered the favorite as an undefeated and top-ranked program, but the Badgers don't plan on following the same script from 2014's postseason.
When asked about the potential rematch with Kentucky (prior to the Wildcats finishing off Notre Dame in spectacular fashion later in the evening), coach Ryan, a candidate for Naismith National Coach of the Year honors, said all the right things.
"We're just happy we're playing. We'll play whoever is on that other line. That's okay by us."
With every victory the Badgers build upon what has already been the most successful campaign in program history, from a wins standpoint. The team is now a staggering 35-3, a perfect 10-0 on neutral floors and 20-2 away from home overall, so no locale is too difficult to handle for this group, even the massive stage of a NFL stadium.
Of the three defeats on the schedule, only one took Wisconsin by surprise, that being a 67-62 setback at Rutgers in one of the first Big Ten road dates of the season back in January. The other two losses came versus nationally- ranked Maryland, the other new addition to the Big Ten, as well as powerhouse Duke (80-70) at home in the Kohl Center during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Even then, the latter contest was being foreshadowed as a potential Final Four preview which might hold true if the Badgers survive and the Blue Devils are able to take down that other Big Ten team invited to Indianapolis, Michigan State.
For the most part this season, defense has been the name of the game for the Big Ten regular season and tournament champions, but that hasn't been the case during the NCAA Tournament necessarily. The Badgers are still one of the most unforgiving units in the country with just 57.8 ppg allowed, but some of that stems from punishing efforts against Northern Kentucky (31 points allowed), Marquette (38), UAB (43) and Nicholls State (43).
Even Coastal Carolina stepped up and produced in the second round of the tourney, posting 72 points versus Wisconsin, followed by North Carolina with 72 and Arizona's 78. But at the same time, the UW offense has also dialed up the energy, scoring at least 71 points in nine straight outings since fighting through a tough conference stretch.
For the sheep who go with the chalk on their tournament brackets in the office pool, maybe they've heard the name Frank Kaminsky, or at least they should. The Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, Kaminsky was just named a finalist for the 2015 John R. Wooden Award on Monday, and also carved out a spot on the Wooden Award All-American Team.
Only the third Wisconsin player to be named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press, Kaminsky has done it all for the Badgers, leading the team in scoring (18.7 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg), assists (99) and blocked shots (54), making him one of the most versatile big men in the country and someone who is on the cusp of becoming a household name.
"You come back to school for moments like this, to share it with your teammates, your friends, the people you've been with the last four years of your life, very significant people that are going to be in the rest of your life as well." Kaminsky stated after the Arizona win. "I can't be more grateful for the opportunity that the school has given me to be put in this position. I'm just so happy right now."
While Wisconsin's roster doesn't harbor blue chip prospects, human highlight reels and NBA lottery selections in-waiting, what coach Ryan does have on his side is a slew of hard-nosed, never-say-die young men that are not content with just getting back to the Final Four for the second year in a row, fighting to become national champions again for the first time since 1941.
In addition to Kaminsky, the Badgers also feature the sharp-shooting Sam Dekker who is comfortable both letting fly with high-arching 3-point tries late in the shot clock and hitting the glass in order to give Kaminsky a break from the pounding in the paint. Dekker scored a career-high 27 versus Arizona, knocking down five shots from 3-point range, a couple of which crushed the hopes of the Wildcats down the stretch.
Home grown in the state of Wisconsin, Dekker has gone from scoring 13.9 ppg on the season overall, to posting 21.8 ppg during the tournament, converting 48.1 percent out on the perimeter and 60.4 percent from the field overall, while accounting for 5.5 rpg.
"Sam's just a heck of a player," teammate Josh Gasser said of his performance versus Arizona. "He's really picked up his game now when it matters the most. In the past few weeks, he's had a great year. And this tournament, he's really shown his full arsenal offensively and defensively. Once he's in a rhythm like that, I know he's pretty hard to stop."
Nigel Hayes (12.3 ppg), Bronson (Koenig (8.8 ppg) and Gasser (7.3 ppg) have all had their moments during this postseason run to help lift the Badgers to new heights, but the ride is far from over for this team of go-getters that has a recent history against all three of the other programs hitting the hardwood on Saturday.