There was Mohammed Ahmed's fifth-place finish in the NCAA cross country championship that helped spark Wisconsin to its fifth national team title the in sport, and first since 2005.
"One of the greatest moments of my life," he said.
There was Ahmed's run in the 10,000 meters at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational that easily met the Olympic "A" qualifying standard and broke the school record by nearly 30 seconds.
"A lot of pressure was relieved from my shoulders," he said.
There was Ahmed's win in the 5000 at the Big Ten outdoor championships that was a meet record and one of two first-place medals UW captured in winning its first crown since 2007.
"The way we came together was true teamwork," he said.
And there was Ahmed's seventh-place finish in the 5K at the NCAA outdoor meet that validated his All-America status a second time despite limited training because of an Achilles injury.
"I wasn't happy with the way I finished, but running is a great metaphor for life," he said.
In other words, you take the good with the very good -- or the exceptional -- in Ahmed's case. Given his list of individual and team accomplishments, what would rank at the top of his list?
"Winning nationals as a team, that's number one," he said. "Cross country was a magical year. The title will be something I'll cherish for the rest of my life. It was a beautiful moment."
Beautiful, he said, because of the chemistry with Elliot Krause, Ryan Collins, Reed Connor and Maverick Darling. Beautiful because it rewarded coach Mick Byrne with a much-deserved title.
It was also beautiful, he said, because of what it told him about his running skills. "Finishing fifth told me that I belonged at the top of the NCAA," Ahmed said. "That helped me a lot."
Ahmed spent the indoor season "training very hard with the focus on going to the Olympics -- and with my first race (the Payton Jordan) I got that out of the way."
That's where the confidence gained from his success competing during the cross country season really kicked in -- in what was, at the time in late April, the fastest 10,000 meters race in the world.
"I thought to myself, 'If you can race with the guys in the NCAA, you can keep up with them, why not here?"' he said, convincing himself that "I can definitely do it."
That confidence carried over to the outdoor season and the Big Ten meet in front of the home fans. "Everyone was doing it for the seniors," said Ahmed, a junior from St. Catharines, Ontario.
Few, he noted, will ever forget senior Kyle Jefferson's true grit during his leg of the 4x400 relay.
"The amount of toughness that he displayed is going to be his legacy," Ahmed said, "and something we talk about every time we see each other or at team reunions.
"It didn't take one person to win the Big Ten title. It took everybody. It took throwers, distance guys, sprinters. Everybody came together. It was a great feeling."
Despite dealing with his Achilles injury, Ahmed is feeling much better in advance of Sunday's departure for Calgary and the Canadian Olympic Trials. He will race Wednesday in the 10,000 meters.
Ahmed is one of two runners who met the "A" qualifying standard. The other, Cameron Levins, who won the Payton Jordan event and claimed two NCAA titles, will compete in only the 5000, though he will double at the Olympics.
"Physically, I'm at a good spot; I'm not burned out yet, I still feel fresh," Ahmed said. "It's all mental now. And I'm going to treat this race just like it was any other race.
"I've learned that you've got to use the nervousness to your advantage. It's good energy if you use it to get ready. I'm not putting this race on a pedestal just because it's the Olympic trials."
Ahmed is looking forward to running for Canada in London.
In a sense, the truest sense, he said, he would be also running for the Badgers.
"Being a Wisconsin Badger," he said, "whether it's my identity on the track as a runner or that of a student, is something that is going to be a part of me forever and ever."
On the 10th-anniversary of Wisconsin's dramatic, come-from-behind Big Ten men's outdoor track and field championship in Madison, coach Ed Nuttycombe had a snap shot in mind - "I still remember it vividly" he said - that matched a cherished photograph on his office desk at Kellner Hall.
Pictured are Isaiah Festa, Matt Tegenkamp, Josh Spiker and Nick Winkel following the 5,000 meters, the second-to-last track event on the final day of the meet. Because the Badgers trailed first-place Minnesota by 24 points going into the 5K, they almost didn't get a chance to run the race; the story within the story.
"It was very memorable," Nuttycombe said.
It was one of his most memorable Big Ten titles, he confided.
That covers a lot of ground (28 years) and championships (24).
But the final round didn't start out very memorable in the 2002 meet.
The Badgers had an early lead in the 400 relay but had to settle for third after a botched exchange. In the very next event - the 1,500 meters - Spiker was running third behind Michigan's Alan Webb and Indiana's John Jefferson when he stumbled and fell about 30 meters from the finish line. He ended up seventh.
Given this backdrop, Wisconsin looked like a long shot to catch the Gophers, although the Badgers had shown their resiliency the year before. In the 2001 Big Ten outdoor meet in Bloomington, Ind., they rallied past Ohio State, 135-117.5, for the team crown despite winning just two individual titles.
T.J. Nelson won the 110-meter hurdles and automatically qualified for nationals by running the third fastest time (13.49 seconds) in the country, while Festa outdistanced Ohio State's Rob Myers down the stretch to win the 1,500 meters. Festa also took a second and Jason Vanderhoof a third in the 5,000.
Clinching the overall title - the UW's fifth outdoors in seven years - on the strength of Festa and Vanderhoof combining for 14 points in a clutch situation, Nuttycombe said afterward, "Our 5,000- meter guys ran with a lot of heart."
Remember those words because they would resonate again in the very same event at the 2002 Big Ten meet on the McClimon Track; the last time that the UW played host to the outdoor track and field championships in Madison.
All the Badgers needed was a spark, according to Nuttycombe, to help reverse the momentum generated by Minnesota, which had been the only league program outside of Wisconsin to win outdoor titles since 1995. (The Badgers, in fact, were trying to pull off their second three-peat over an eight-year span.)
In order to put some pressure on the Gophers, the 1998 and 1999 team champion, someone had to "step up" and that's exactly what happened with Jon Mungen winning the 110 high hurdles and B.J. Tucker taking second in the 100. Len Herring also produced some valuable points with a second in the triple jump.
The real catalyst, though, was freshman Dan Murray who came out of the pack - fourth place - over the final 200 meters to win the 800. Murray not only set a track record (1:48.2), but posted a provisional NCAA qualifying mark. In the process, he seemed to inspire his teammates.
But the math still didn't add up.
Minnesota had the team lead - 135-110.5 - over Wisconsin.
Going into the 5,000-meters, Nuttycombe admitted, "We considered pulling some of the better guys out of the race to save their legs for nationals. We didn't want to extend them if there was no need to, and we told them that."
Nuttycombe and Jerry Schumacher, then the cross country and distance coach, merely attempted to paint a realistic picture for their 5K racers.
"After we told them what we were considering," Nuttycombe said, "they go, 'No way. We're not going to let you do that.'"
What followed was another reality check from Nuttycombe.
"Guys, we've got to do almost the impossible (to catch Minnesota)."
They responded by asking, "What do we need to do?"
"We need to go one, two, three, four in the 5,000."
"Coach, we're going to do it."
Festa and Tegenkamp went out and finished one-two in the 5,000, while Spiker was fourth and Winkel was fifth. That was close enough to fulfilling Nuttycombe's challenge, and good enough to pick up 27 points in the event.
Then it came down to the final event, the 4 x 400-meter relay. Minnesota was the top seed and Nuttycombe instructed his runners, "If you can't win, you can't allow more than one team between us and them (the Gophs)."
Actually, the Badgers could have finished lower than third and still won the meet but Nuttycombe was determined to pull out all stops in motivating his relay team: Jvontai Hanserd, Ricardo Rodriguez, Gustin Smith and Jabari Pride.
"We chased Minnesota around the track," Nuttycombe recounted fondly.
The Badgers finished second in the relay, and won the outdoor title.
"It was very memorable, not only for winning," Nuttycombe said.
But it was memorable, he observed, for not throwing in the towel on the 5,000 meters; memorable for not underestimating Festa, Tegenkamp, Spiker and Winkel; memorable for not denying them an opportunity to race.
Nuttycombe is reminded of that moment every day. "There's that picture right on my desk - one of my favorite pictures - of those four guys with their arms around each other right after the finish," he said. "That was awesome."
A 10-year anniversary worth celebrating this weekend in Madison.
Two days after Wisconsin's season-ending loss to Syracuse in the "Sweet 16," an email from junior Zach Bohannon showed up in my inbox.
Bohannon, who redshirted in 2011-12 after transferring to Wisconsin from Air Force, was unable to travel with the team due to NCAA transfer rules. Instead he holed up in the UW men's basketball office at the Kohl Center and watched the season come to an end just like the rest of us.
However, unlike the rest of us, Zach's therapy to deal with the loss was to write about it. This is what he sent me.
The Longest 15 Seconds of My Life By Zach Bohannon
Just over 15 seconds remained on the clock...
Wisconsin just got the ball back, down 63-64, and it was in none other than Jordan Taylor's hands. As I sat watching the game from the basketball offices back at the Kohl Center, I could not help but think about what a picturesque scene this truly was. Wisconsin was in the Sweet 16, playing against a team that was ranked #1 in the nation for a good majority of the year and we had the final shot to win it. Coach Ryan, who strategically chose not to use his final timeout after we regained possession, more importantly trusted that Jordan would be able to make a play and send us into the next round. Who better would you want with the ball in that situation anyways?
Less than 13 seconds remained on the clock...
Jordan dribbled the ball up across the half court line and the top two defenders in Syracuse's ferocious 2-3 zone defense played a game of cat and mouse with him. Wisconsin had the play "Horns" called, which is two high ball screens at each side of the lane. This action was made famous by two-time NBA champion coach Chuck Daly, who coined the term in the 1980's. The play was exploited by Syracuse due to their great length and athleticism. However, Jordan tried to make a play anyways, something that Wisconsin fans saw countless times throughout his stellar career, but nothing was there. He retreat dribbled back to half court, a maneuver that has been drilled into his head religiously the past four seasons by Coach Ryan when you are under pressure. Time was running out and Jordan knew it, but still somehow kept his cool.
Less than 10 seconds remained on the clock...
Jordan took a look up at the clock and saw it was now or never to make something happen. He dialed in and dribbled right back at the two Syracuse guards, putting both of them on their heels. He drew a double team and whipped a right-handed pass around the left side of the top defender. The pass landed in Jordan's senior teammate hands of Rob Wilson. This was typical Jordan, knowing when to give up the ball when he had to. He became famous for this throughout his marvelous career as well, while along the way, shattering the NCAA's assist to turnover record. This was the action that made Jordan such a great player at Wisconsin, he knew when to take over a game but more importantly, he knew when it was time to make his teammates better. This was one of those.
Less than 7 seconds remained on the clock...
As the ball bounced to the floor and Rob caught a perfect pass from Jordan, he as well was immediately double teamed. Rob tried to pump fake to shake one of the defenders off of him, but it was to no avail. He was in a similar situation as Jordan was just in and knew nothing was there, so he kicked it back out to the point guard.
Less than 5 seconds remained on the clock...
Jordan received the bounce pass and took one right handed dribble in order to gather some momentum to get up a decent look from three. He found an opening and it was a miracle that he even got up a decent look. The infinitesimal gap he found to shoot was closed with not one, but two Syracuse defenders. However, Jordan still got the shot off cleanly with 3.3 seconds left, a smart play because he gave our team just enough time to have an opportunity for an offensive rebound and a put back to win. No one was thinking about that at the time though. As the shot was released, for that one second the ball was in the air, the world stopped spinning and everyone was focused on the spinning orange leather globe. Everyone was on their feet praying for two different outcomes. As I use to say when I was younger, the "good guys" (Badgers) were praying for only one more basket. The "bad guys" (Syracuse) were praying for one final miss. With exactly two seconds left, the shot fell inches short. But the season was not quite over yet.
Less than 2 seconds remained on the clock...
The one Badger who always found a way to get his hands in on the action throughout the year, found a way to do it again. Mike Bruesewitz "bruised" his way to another rebound and tapped it just enough to keep it alive, a play he had done countless times as well in the season. The ball was knocked to the floor with exactly one and a half seconds left and it was found in the hands of Josh Gasser, a player who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, had done it once again. Realizing that time was about to expire, he threw up a desperation one handed fade away shot as the horn sounded and it hit nothing. Nothing, but air.
No time remained on the clock...
The game was officially over. The scoreboard's red light was on, no more time was left, no fouls had been called, and nothing was reviewable. The final 15 seconds of Wisconsin's year had come to a halt, but more sadly, we witnessed the final game of two more great Badgers, Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson. These excellent ambassadors of not only the basketball program, but of the University of Wisconsin as a whole, just like that had both finished up their careers in this last play. Rob immediately bent down and put his hands on his knees, while Jordan put his jersey over his face. It was all over. The "good guys" did not win. Jordan and Rob did not get their one shining moment like they had dreamed of since they were little kids shooting hoops in their backyard and on the playground. Both of their four year college windows were over. In a blink of an eye, their careers were done.
The clock is ticking...
That is the magical thing about sports. The "good guys" do not always come out on top, even if they played their best and up to their potential. It is a mysterious phenomenon to grasp; that is, hard work does not always lead to success. One works his entire life to have that one golden opportunity, but it still sometimes is not enough. Through all of this however, we are forgetting to mention the hundreds of thousands of seconds that led to those final 15 seconds of their careers. Years down the road, this play will be meaningless. Sure we will remember that Wisconsin lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, but more importantly, we will remember the great lessons that these two fine seniors had shown throughout their careers.
Let's start with Rob. I do not think you can come up with a better word for his career than perseverance. Rob exhibited this trait throughout his career, and I am not only talking about on the court, but in the classroom as well. Rob is going to be the first college graduate in his family when he gets his degree this May. He overcame that great barrier, which should be applauded on its own. However, Rob did even more. On the court, Rob struggled throughout his career to get consistent minutes. His career was a roller coaster, with many highs and lows. His senior season in particular, he played sporadic minutes up until the second half of the Big Ten season, until finally he had taken advantage of his opportunity. The great thing that the average fan did not see was the hard work and commitment he showed through the tough times. Rob never pouted or got upset for a long period of time, he would be mad initially, but he moved on. He just prayed for one more opportunity to show what he really could do and what he believed in himself to be able to do. He persevered until finally he solidified his minutes and had a huge role on the team. To the average fan, Rob came out of nowhere and scored 30 points, along with tying a Wisconsin record of 7 three's, in a big win over Indiana in the conference tournament. However, the average fan did not see the thousands of shots and extra sessions in the gym through his difficult times. In regards to his final play, just the fact that Rob was in the game and in a position to make a play against #1 seeded Syracuse was a feat by itself, but showed how much he grew as a person throughout his career. He kept getting better and his hard work was rewarded. In the end, his perseverance paid off.
Now time to talk about Jordan. The one obvious word that defines his career and who he was is leader. As Coach Ryan often jokes, Jordan could possibly be "the future Governor." That's a pretty strong statement coming from your head coach, but I honestly think that is an understatement on just quite how great of a leader he truly is. His leadership skills put him second to none and could easily make him the President if he wanted to! Jordan will be one of the greatest leaders to come out of the University of Wisconsin, ever. He is that great with people, but that is not what makes him special. It is his ability to get people to not only listen to him, but to follow him as well. A lot of people, including most sports writers, said that the year that Jordan had this year was a "down year" compared to what he accomplished last year and he was no longer "a top five point guard in the country." That kind of statement is just mind boggling. He went from a Sweet 16 team, losing three starters, including one to the NBA, came back the following year as a senior, with a bunch of "no names", and accomplished the same, if not more. He turned these "no names" to household names in the mere matter of months. He led the team to not only a point away from an Elite Eight game, but he won a game in the conference tournament, something Wisconsin had not done the previous three years, and he was only one game out of the conference title race. Not bad for a senior point guard that's team was predicted to finish 7th in the Big Ten this year. He single handedly willed his team this year from start to finish, and took more burdens on himself than any single person deserves. But that's what leaders do, they take the blame when the going gets rough, and praises their teammates when their on a high. That's what Jordan did, time and time again throughout the year. It was an honor to be in his locker room and on the court, along with Rob, this season.
As I sat down to write this the morning after the game, coincidentally the basketball team was just landing in Madison and coming back from Boston. I could not help but think of the greater implications of the picturesque scene that they came back to. Jordan and Rob had started their next stage of their lives, the ending of one thing led to the beginning of another for them. However, someone, somewhere decided to still mourn. The day was overcast with a slight rain that happened throughout the day. We never did see the sun that day, the big orange thing, a metaphor for the mascot of Syracuse, was off hiding. They knew that the career of two great young men had just come to a close. They did not want to be anywhere near Madison, and someone greater than us all decided to mourn as well.
As a sports fan, eventually you will forget about great games, great plays or even great players. However, the one thing you will not forget will be the players who touched your life emotionally, either directly or indirectly. If each one of us could take these lessons and learn from them like we did from these two great seniors, think about how better off we would be. I hope that each one of you prepare for your "one shining moment" with every ounce of energy you have. Don't ever give up on that vision either, because the struggle will be worth it. Now what are you waiting for?! Your time is limited, and the clock is ticking...
Just like the weather in Wisconsin, spring came too early for UW men's hockey in 2012. It actually seemed like the Badgers were themselves reaching spring, a time for renewal, birth and growth. Their goaltending began to solidify, the penalty kill improved and the team learned how to win on the road. But like a hard freeze after unexpectedly warm March days, reality brought an end to the season, and with it came much self-reflection. That continued last week as the coaching staff conducted end-of-season player meetings.
After the abrupt end to the season, the team took a couple of weeks to regroup and returned to the weight room with an eye towards next October and the start of another Badger hockey season. The meetings are an important step in the process.
While those meetings mark the end of each year, the end of each season can feel very different. When the ultimate goal is reached and an NCAA championship won, celebration rules the day. Some seasons end with a realization that things like graduation and early departures will give great opportunities, but also likely less-than-ideal results in the coming season. And some end like the 2011-12 one, when a team is highly motivated with the knowledge that the program is on the upswing. Improved late-season play, the expected return of most of the roster and the anticipated addition of talented newcomers points to a better future ahead.
I have a vivid memory from the end of the 2004-05 season which has come to mind on the final bus or plane ride every season since. After the Badgers were thumped in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Michigan, I remember then-senior goaltender Bernd Bruckler talking with others on the team. They were all talking about how badly they wanted to get back on the ice. Even Bruckler, whose Badger career was at that point already finished. He sounded like he wanted to get back out on the ice immediately and get better, like there were still games to play. That attitude carried over into the magical 2006 NCAA championship season and surely played a major role in the result.
After 2008-09, when the Badgers missed the NCAA tournament by 0.002 in the RPI, the team had shirts made up with that number on the back. It was a reminder of the pain of missing a chance at a national championship and the team made it all the way to the 2010 NCAA championship game the next season.
The end of this season bore some similarities to the ends of the 2005 and 2009 campaigns. There was that feeling of things coming together. There felt like there was something you could almost touch with the way the team was playing and with everyone's positive attitude. Just a little more time and who knows what could have happened.
That bodes well for next hockey season. I don't know if that means it will end with a trip to Pittsburgh and the Frozen Four, but things are looking up and the future looks bright in Badger land. It will be a long offseason until Saturday, Oct. 6, when the Badgers can get back on the ice, show off the results of all their work and take out that feeling on someone else. Hope springs eternal.
The 2011-12 NHL season featured 22 former Badgers, including some of the league's elite. Ten of those skaters continue on with their teams into the playoffs this week, with the possibility of at least one more. Wisconsin featured 11 former skaters in the 2011 NHL Playoffs.
The New York Rangers, who finished just two points shy of the President's Trophy this season enter the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers feature two former Badgers in Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh. Stepan was fourth on the team this season with 17 goals and 51 total points. McDonagh meanwhile contributed 32 points in the regular season, second most among all Rangers defenders. New York takes on Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs.
Ottawa, which claimed the final playoff spot in the East, features former Badger Kyle Turris. Turris, who was an early-season contract hold-out, signed with Phoenix in late November before being dealt to Ottawa three weeks later. In his 49 games with the Senators this season, Turris has collected 12 goals and 29 points.
St. Louis also finished just two points short of the President's Trophy and enters the playoffs as the second seed in the Western Conference. The Blues have been led by two stellar goaltenders this season, including former Badger Brian Elliott. Elliott posted the top marks in the NHL in both save percentage (.940) as well as goals allowed average (1.56) for the regular season. Elliot's 1.56 goals allowed average is the lowest for an NHL goaltender since the 1939-40 season when Rangers goalie Dave Kerr notched a 1.54 mark. A 2006 national champion at Wisconsin, Elliott also posted nine shutouts, second most among all league goaltenders this season. He will share the Jennings Trophy with fellow Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak as the team with the lowest goals-against average during the regular season. St. Louis faces San Jose in the first round.
San Jose features two former Badgers. Joe Pavelski ranked 20th in the league this season with 31 goals while ranking fourth on the Sharks roster with 61 points. Teammate Brad Winchester has scored six times in 67 games for the Sharks this season. Also, former UW strength coach Mike Potenza serves as the Sharks' strength coach.
The Eastern Conference third-seeded Florida Panthers feature one former Badger skater in Jack Skille. The Madison native has 10 points in 46 games this season. The Panthers will take on New Jersey in the opening round.
Nashville, the fourth seed in the Western Conference features two more former Badgers. Ryan Suter and Craig Smith, one of the top rookies in the NHL, both participated in the NHL All-Star Game festivities this season. Suter finished fifth on the team in scoring with 46 points, while Smith put together 36 points, eighth-best for the Preds. Smith's 36 points also ranked eighth-best among all league rookies. The Predators match up with Detroit in the first round of the playoffs.
Possibly skating for the Red Wings in the opening round could be rookie defenseman Brendan Smith. Smith was called up to Detroit in late February and has played 14 games since, scoring once and tallying seven more assists.
The Los Angeles Kings, who claimed the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference, feature one former Badger in Davis Drewiske. The defenseman scored twice in nine games this season, but has sat out most of the year as a healthy scratch.
The run to the Stanley Cup begins Wednesday.
Skating for the Badgers in the NHL this season: 22 former Badgers skated in the NHL this year, including six who made their NHL debuts. Bolded skaters are on playoff teams.
Rene Bourque (Calgary and Montreal) Adam Burish (Dallas) Jake Dowell (Dallas) Davis Drewiske (Los Angeles) Brian Elliott (St. Louis) Jake Gardiner (Toronto) - NHL DEBUT Blake Geoffrion (Nashville and Montreal) Tom Gilbert (Edmonton and Minnesota) Cody Goloubef (Columbus) - NHL DEBUT Dany Heatley (Minnesota) Andrew Joudrey (Columbus) - NHL DEBUT Jamie McBain (Carolina) Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers) Joe Pavelski (San Jose) Joe Piskula (Calgary) Jack Skille (Florida) Brendan Smith (Detroit) - NHL DEBUT Craig Smith (Nashville) - NHL DEBUT Derek Stepan (New York Rangers) Ryan Suter (Nashville) Kyle Turris (Phoenix and Ottawa) Brad Winchester (San Jose)
St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott (Badger 2003-07) is
doing something he hasn't done since the 2005-06 season for the Wisconsin
Badgers. He's leading his league in goals-against average, save percentage and
shutouts. He's also on an extended shutout streak between the pipes.
Back during Wisconsin 2005-06 season, Elliott backstopped
the Badgers to the program's sixth NCAA title and led the nation with a 1. 55
goals-against average, .938 save percentage and eight shutouts. All are school
records. He also put together a WCHA record shutout streak of 269:52.
This season for St. Louis, Elliott currently leads the NHL
with a 1.48 goals-against average, .943 save percentage and nine shutouts. He
also happens to be in the midst of a shutout streak lasting more than three
games. The Newmarket, Ontario native hasn't allowed a goal in 186:33, which is a franchise record. He has already set single-season records for
shutouts and shares the franchise record of combined shutouts in a season with
teammate Jaroslav Halak at 15. The 15 shutouts equal the modern era NHL record for team shutouts in a season.
In addition to Elliott's individual marks, his team leads in
the chase for the NHL's President's Trophy, which goes to the regular season
champion of the league. The Blue have four games remaining in their season.
Elliott's Blues are comfortably in the NHL playoffs, which
begin in just under two weeks. He will be joined in the race for the Stanley
Cup by other Badger alumni. New York Rangers Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh are
battling Elliott for the President's Trophy with a playoff spot in hand. Other
Badgers currently in playoff position include Jack Skille's Florida Panthers,
Kyle Turris' Ottawa Senators, Ryan Suter and Craig Smith's Nashville Predators,
Adam Burish and Jake Dowell's Dallas Stars and Davis Drewiske's Los Angeles
Kings. Joe Pavelski and Brad Winchester's San Jose Sharks are just on the
outside looking in at the moment. The Detroit Red Wings, who Brendan Smith has
skated for this season, has clinched a playoff spot.
Rob Wilson, Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky will be watching and studying. They will be taking mental notes on everything that takes place on the floor between Wisconsin and Syracuse in the early minutes of Thursday night's Sweet 16 game of the NCAA tournament.
They will each be paying attention to the individual matchups and all of the little details that impact runs and momentum despite not knowing for sure when they will get the call from Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan to enter the game against the Orange.
Staying ready is part of the challenge for any player who comes off the bench. Through the second and third round games - the wins over Montana and Vanderbilt - Wilson, Brust and Kaminsky are averaging 25.5, 16.5 and 4.5 minutes, respectively.
"You know that you could be called on at any time so you prepare your mind mentally that you're always ready," said Wilson, a senior, who stunned Indiana in the Big Ten tournament with 30 points in 32 minutes. He has two starts in 116 career games.
"You can learn a lot by not being out there right away," Wilson said, "because you're able to see what they're doing and you can almost figure out what their game plan is before you actually get into the game and go against it."
You can get a feel, Wilson noted, from watching how players move without the basketball on offense or handle screens on defense. Against Syracuse, which features a signature 2-3 zone, he will see if there are tendencies, especially jumping passing lanes.
"I want to know which guy is playing aggressively in their zone," said Wilson, adding that the most distinguishing characteristic of the Orange defense is the length of the players which they use to their advantage by getting deflections and creating turnovers.
"You always have to keep that in the back of your mind - that they are a lot longer than you might expect. So you have to make a lot of ball fakes and be strong with the ball. If you turn it over, there might be a dunk at the other end. They feed off that."
Understanding and accepting a bench role is key. "Our bench has been important all season and we have to keep bringing the energy," said Wilson who had 10 points against Montana but none against Vandy. "Scoring is not the only way you can contribute."
On defense, Wilson helped chase John Jenkins, who was held well under his season scoring average. He also had a couple of timely rebounds and assists without turning over the ball. That will be critical against Syracuse's ball-hawking defense.
"We haven't really faced a lot of zone this year," conceded Brust, who faced many box-and-one defenses in high school because he was such a big-time scorer. "We've played a lot of different defenses this year and we have to use that knowledge in this game."
As the opening minutes are unfolding, Brust said, "There's definitely a learning curve because you have the time to watch (from the bench) and see what's working, and what's not working and what mistakes are being made."
Brust had 11 points and four rebounds against Vanderbilt. That was the most he had scored since Jan. 26 when he had 13 against Indiana. But who's counting? "We have a balanced attack," he said. "Everybody can shoot, dribble, pass and defend."
Kaminsky, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out some things as a true freshman. Against Montana, he played only three minutes. "I was really nervous; it's my first tournament," he said, shrugging. "But I got rid of the nerves and now I'm ready to go."
While he's waiting for his turn, Kaminsky will try to get a feel for how Syracuse is handling Berggren and then put it to use when he's in the game. "If they're closing out too hard, then go to the rim," he said. "If they're playing off of him, then shoot it."
Getting up to game speed is more difficult. "You really have to be out there," Kaminsky said. "But you can pick up on the little things that can help you. Coach (Bo Ryan) is always telling us before the game to pay attention to what you can go in and do."
Syracuse's bench outscored Kansas State, 33-0. Dion Waiters, who's viewed in most circles as the top sixth man in college basketball, had a game-high 18 points while James Southerland chipped in with 15 points and six rebounds.
How will the Badgers counter-punch? Will it be Wilson? Brust? Will it be Wilson and Brust? Kaminsky has a reasonable expectation. "Even if I have to go in and give someone a break for a couple of minutes, that's fine," he said. "We have to do what we can do to win."
Ryan Evans was still trying to digest the win over Indiana here Friday in the Big Ten tournament when he was prodded to look ahead to Michigan State, a rival that swept the regular season series against the Badgers for the first time under Bo Ryan.
"Aw, man, I'm just trying to sit back and enjoy this one," Evans kiddingly protested while unwinding in front of his locker. "But it's the same old, same old (with the Spartans). You've got to guard Draymond Green; he's going to be the focal point.
(Green had 18 and 20 points against Wisconsin earlier this season.)
"But they've got a lot of other guys that are able to do stuff. We watched them a little bit today (in Michigan State's 92-75 win over Iowa). A lot of guys were knocking down shots fluently within their offense.
"They're like us - they've got a lot of players that you've got to stop."
The Spartans had four players in double-figures against Iowa: Green, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Brandon Wood. Two others had nine apiece: Derrick Nix and Travis Trice. Michigan State dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Hawkeyes by a 36-24 margin.
"I think we actually outrebounded them (33-30) at their house," Evans noted of the Feb. 16 game at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. "But it's going to be tough to be able to do that again. We just have to be ready to get pushed around some."
And they need to push back, too, Evans implied. They also need to get back - on defense. Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 15-0 in transition points; most of the damage coming during a 14-0 run in the first half. The Badgers never recovered in the 69-55 loss.
"We know what they're capable of, and we know what they're going to try to do to us," said UW center Jared Berggren. "They took it to us twice this year and we know where we have to improve on, and where we need to do a better job.
"If we get contributions from different guys like we did (against Indiana) and balanced scoring - Rob (Wilson) getting hot like that again definitely wouldn't hurt either."
Wilson was the buzz of the tournament after scoring 30 against the Hoosiers. Had he done this next week in the first round of the Big Dance, which has no equal in terms of national exposure and pub, he would have been booking an appearance on The Late Show with Dave Letterman.
Will Wilson feel any better, he was asked Friday, knowing that Michigan State will likely be talking about him when the Spartans go through their walk-through in advance of facing the Badgers?
"No, I don't want them to put that much thought into me," he said.
Pausing, he then completed his thought by saying, "I hope that I can continue to be open - I just have to keep moving so that my teammates can find me like they did today. My mentality is to keep shooting, especially when you're hot, just keep shooting."
Wilson played 16 minutes and scored five points against the Spartans at the Breslin Center. In the 63-60 overtime loss to Michigan State at the Kohl Center, he took only two shots and missed them both during his 12 minutes of playing time.
A key will be what the Badgers can get out of Jordan Taylor, who had 28 in Madison but only 13 points on 3-of-13 shooting in East Lansing. When push comes to shove, as Evans intimated, they're going to have to make a push to get Taylor more involved.
Especially since the Spartans will be on the look-out for Wilson.
Of all the improbable achievements in Wisconsin athletics history, the 2001-02 Badger men's basketball team has to rank among the most remarkable.
With a roster featuring just one returning starter and only eight scholarship players, first-year head coach Bo Ryan watched his squad struggle to a 1-4 start. Incredibly, Ryan's team would spend the next four months battling back to earn a share of the school's first Big Ten championship in 55 years.
At halftime of Sunday's 65-55 win over Penn State, the University of the Wisconsin honored the 10-year anniversary of that 2002 Big Ten Championship team.
As seen in the video above, members of the team and staff were introduced Sunday to a standing ovation from a capacity Kohl Center crowd.
The 2001-02 Badgers won their final six conference games to finish the season with a 19-13 record, including an 11-5 mark in Big Ten play. Wisconsin earned a share of the Big Ten Conference title for the first time since 1947 and earned the league's No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. UW would advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament that year before falling to eventual national champion Maryland.
Ryan became the first-ever Badger coach to earn Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after leading UW to 19 wins, most ever for a first-year coach. He also became just the 10th coach in conference history to win a league title in his first season. RELATED CONTENT
Bloody but unbowed has been a cliche but apt metaphor for the Wisconsin-Michigan State series. Whenever these rivals meet, it seems, there's figuratively some blood spilt.
That doesn't include the occasional bad blood that has existed over the past decade.
After Thursday's slugfest, UW junior Jared Berggren was sporting five stitches under his chin. At one point, Berggren's blood had to be literally wiped off the court after the wound reopened.
There may be no better classroom in the Big Ten than the Breslin Center. After the 69-55 loss in East Lansing, Mich., Berggren conceded, "There's a lot to learn from."
Frank Kaminsky was in lockstep with Berggren's thinking.
"A game like this really teaches you what you need to improve on," said Kaminsky, the 6-foot-11, 230-pound freshman center from Lisle, Ill. "I'm going to take a lot away from this."
This was just another chapter in Kaminsky's orientation to the Big Ten. On this night, the teaching assistants were 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6-10, 240-pound Adreian Payne.
"I learned how to fight back," Kaminsky said. "If they're pushing, you've got to push right back. You can't let down at any point in the game or they will take advantage of you.
"Everyone is big, everyone is strong. You have to neutralize their strength somehow. You've got to be smarter about the plays that you can go out there and make. That's what I'm learning right now."
There was one sequence where Nix was able to school Kaminsky on the low post. "They exploited me a little bit on defense," Kaminsky admitted. "I have to work harder."
Despite a baptism under fire to the raucous Izzone environment - not to mention dealing with MSU's imposing frontline, which also includes Draymond Green - Kaminsky did some good things.
While playing a Big Ten-high 12 minutes, Kaminsky grabbed a career-high six rebounds.
Speaking to the rebounding total which was split evenly (three each) between the offensive and defensive glass, UW associate head coach Greg Gard said, "I thought he was active that way."
Moreover, he noticed, "I don't think Frank was out of his element in any way."
On one possession, Gard said Kaminsky turned down a shot in transition that he needed to take. He also took a shot at the end of the clock when he could have kicked and gotten a better one.
His decision-making will improve with more experience, Gard implied.
But it's the physical part of the game that needs to be addressed during the off-season.
"Physically, he's adequate, but he's not where he needs to be," Gard said. "He needs another year of conditioning and weight lifting. He needs to change and reconfigure his body a little."
That's all part of getting a Big Ten education, particularly for a first-year player.
Nobody exposes you quicker than Michigan State, either.
"Enjoying and embracing the physical nature of the game is one thing that freshmen don't quite understand until they go through it a time or two," Gard said.
"Thursday's game will be a good reference point for Frank because now he has some understanding on why he needs to get stronger and the benefits that he can derive from it.
"We're so adamant about imposing your will and not backing down. That goes along with the fact we're always talking about playing physical without fouling; all the things that really good teams do.
"Maybe this knowledge will help him push through another set of squats in the weight room. Or maybe it will drive him to go a little harder when he's running the hill, whatever it may be."
Nix's steady development can be a case study for others in the conference. Since he weighed 340 pounds in high school, he has been reshaping his body. He's now down to 270.
Nix averaged only eight minutes of playing time his first two seasons with the Spartans. He's now up to 19, and he has become an integral contributor to the team's success around the rim.
What are the chances that the UW's Evan Anderson could play that role in the future? The 6-10, 260-pound Anderson, a redshirt freshman Eau Claire North, definitely has appealing size and strength.
"I think he's almost at the point where he can play right now and help," Gard said. "I really liked what I've seen. Not everything is perfect but he has a competitive fire about him.
"Evan has a little bit of a nasty edge. He just has to learn to polish up that nastiness to where he's not fouling all the time. But I don't see any reason why he can't come along the same path as Nix.
"He's a huge body and he loves to play physical. We need more of that."
During Wednesday night's practice at the Breslin Center, UW coach Bo Ryan was not satisfied with the work of his "bigs" so he pulled Anderson off the scout team and had him run with the starters.
"Some experience will do wonders for him," Gard said. "When he has been with me on the scout team, you can park him on the block and do some of the things Michigan State does (with Nix).
"There's no reason why he can't play for us down the road, if not sooner. He's never going to be light of foot or a leaper. But I see bigs across the country that aren't that way but they're effective.
"Hopefully we can get to the point with Evan where we can get him into the game for short spurts. It doesn't have to be eight minutes at a time - but a minute here and two minutes there."
That would apply, Gard suggested, "Whether he sinks or swims."
Which, he added, is the only way you learn how to swim.
Just ask Kaminsky who got his feet wet Thursday night in the shark tank.