March 29, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- What chance did you give them? Seriously. What chance did you give this Wisconsin basketball team after a heartbreaking 56-55 loss to Ohio State on Feb. 1 at the Kohl Center? What did you think about them then? Final Four?
After botching and misfiring on a final offensive possession, the Badgers fell to 4-5 in the Big Ten with an unprecedented third straight home loss. Losers of five of six, the 16-0 winning streak to start the season was now a distant memory.
Seriously, what chance did you give them? Final Four? At that point, did you wonder if they could finish in the First Four? The conference’s first four. Their 12-year streak of finishing no lower than fourth certainly seemed to be in jeopardy after losing to the Buckeyes.
But there was never any finger-pointing, there was never any second-guessing. Instead, the players were more committed than ever to rediscover that winning formula from the first two months of the season. Such was their resolve.
Wins over Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota pointed them back in the right direction. So, what did you think about them then? Still, unconvinced that they were back? Surely, you were more optimistic. But what chance did you give them? Final Four?
The first sign that this team could be special was on Feb. 16 in Ann Arbor. The Badgers abused a Michigan team that had whipped them earlier in the league season on their home floor. This was a statement game, more so than the November win over Florida.
Why? The Gators were shorthanded, the Wolverines were not, and the Badgers were by far the better team in Crisler Center. That set up a road trip to Iowa and a grudge match with the Hawkeyes, who had woofed about how they were wronged in Madison.
Once again, Wisconsin exhibited its toughness in a tough environment and pulled out a 79-74 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. So let’s take inventory. Since losing five of six, they had now won five straight, including three on the road. What chance did you give them then?
The Badgers would extend their winning streak to eight in a row before losing to a Nebraska team that had a greater urgency -- to get into the NCAA tournament -- and an unbelievable home court advantage. No harm, no foul, the Huskers deserved it.
After one of their most complete games of the season against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, the Badgers came out flat-footed against Michigan State and it was costly. Despite an inspired second half, they came up short. That was the last time they lost.
What chance did you give them now? Seriously. Were they good enough to win four games to get to a Final Four? Were they good enough to win six games to win a national championship? Let’s back up. Were they good enough to reach a Sweet 16?
Who knows? Maybe they don’t get there if they’re not playing in front of a “home’’ crowd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. But they earned that right by virtue of their No. 2 seed, which they had earned by playing a tougher non-conference schedule than some pretenders.
The win over Baylor was incredibly convincing but nothing could foreshadow the theatrics of the Elite Eight finale against Arizona. This was a game for the ages. Check that. This was a game for Bo and Butch Ryan. This was a game for the players and assistants.
All of the above.
Each of the players in the Wisconsin locker room were wearing a baseball cap with a piece of the net, the ultimate prize. Cutting down the nets, by the way, never gets old. A matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 seed played out that way: tremendously competitive.
In the end, the Badgers made a few more plays than the Wildcats. They were obviously hardened and prepared to win a game of this nature. Maybe it was the resiliency that they developed during that mid-season slump. Adversity can build character.
Chemistry is something else. And this team has it, along with a ticket to the Final Four. Not that Bo Ryan needed validation for a Hall of Fame coaching career, but he has it. Got it on the same day that Butch would have been 90. Can’t make something like this up.
What chance did you give them? Seriously. This team just has it.