Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
It's tempting to call Ben Brust's half-court shot and Wisconsin's win over Michigan magic. Don't.
It was just that old Kohl Center magic. Wisconsin took down No. 3 Michigan in Madison on Saturday -- as Wisconsin has every time it has faced Michigan in Madison this millennium -- 65-62, in overtime, behind a half-court buzzer beater from Ben Brust. No matter how well Michigan played, Wisconsin found itself in the game.
The Wolverines blew somewhere around seven uncontested layups. Mitch McGary missed a wide-open layup after a Traevon Jackson turnover with 2:01 to go in overtime. Michigan would have taken a 64-62 lead. Trey Burke missed a layup with 2:31 to go in regulation. Michigan would have taken a 57-54 lead. He missed another one just 83 seconds earlier. Michigan would have taken a 57-52 lead. These are not shots either McGary or Burke miss. Any one of them could have won the game for the Wolverines.
That old Kohl Center magic? It seems like teams always find a way to miss those layups at the Kohl Center. But John Beilein doesn't believe in magic:
"It has nothing to do with being here. Nothing to do with it. Some days you just miss layups. They're not going in there saying, 'Oh, it's the Kohl Center, I can't make a layup.' There's not a science to this. Sometimes they miss them."
Beilein used the word "science," not "magic," but both are often used to describe those things for which we lack explanation. Like so many things in sports, we lack a satisfying explanation for the missed layups by McGary and Burke. Ben Brust's 45-footer defies explanation. We acknowledge there is no science to these things, and so we're left with writers asking coaches about magic at post-game press conferences.
Unsurprisingly, Bo Ryan was presented with the same question come his turn at the podium. Ryan tells a lot of stories at his press conferences. He talks about his extensive coaching history, old games, old players. Occasionally, he even talks about his own playing days, as he did to answer the "magic" question.
"I was 14 years old. [My high school basketball] coach Rainey brought me up to the varsity my first game. I'm at Swarthmore College. I hit a basket from the top of the key. My first high school basket, banked in, from the top of the key. He goes to the scorer's table and in the loudest voice you can imagine and is screaming 'You can't count that! You can't count that! He didn't call the bank shot!'
So that's my indoctrination into basketball, high school level and up. My own coach trying to take a basket away from me. So, I've kind of developed some thick skin, when you say 'magic.' Sometimes it goes the other way, too. You take them when you get them and when you don't, you learn from it. John had his guys ready. They knew what to do at the end. Our guy hit a tough shot. Ben Brust hit a tough shot."
In all this talk about magic, we sometimes forget what we actually watch on the court. These players, even at the amateur level, devote their lives -- hours upon hours, weeks upon weeks, often back to their elementary school days -- perfecting a craft. We see 40 minutes of it -- 45 minutes on Saturday -- at a time, and the rest stays behind the scenes.
As Ryan reminded us, many Badger fans have seen the Ben Brust play before. It was the 2005 Big Ten Tournament against Iowa. Zach Morley was in Mike Bruesewitz spot as the passer. Alando Tucker was in Brust's spot as the receiver on the inbounds.
Tucker, unlike Brust, had time to dribble and turn it into a nearly normal three-point shot, but the concept is the same. Brust and Tucker both ran to the spot vacated by a defender trying to guard the play's first option, both were hit with a perfect pass in stride, and both made the best possible shot out of the bleak situation.
This is a play, as Ryan reminded us, the Badgers practice, and practice, and practice some more. KenPom.com said the Badgers have a 1.2 percent chance of winning. ESPN pulled a stat that said NBA players have made just over one percent of shots from 40 feet out with one second to go, like Brust's shot Saturday. Maybe the Badgers' well-designed play, repetitions in practice and Brust's shooting ability boosted their odds to two percent, three percent, even four or five percent.
A 1.2 percent chance hits 12 out of every 1,000 times. I knew that, in the back of my mind, when Brust's shot swished through. I know that now, even as I ride the high of the game over 24 hours later. It feels magic, as much as anything can feel magic.
But it isn't magic. Bo Ryan drew up a great play. Mike Bruesewitz made a great pass. Ben Brust hit a great shot. Magic suggests these moments of greatness come from somewhere other than within the athletes. Magic diminishes their work and diminishes their talent.
Ryan paused for a few seconds as he finished up the story of his banked-in shot.
Then he said, "They did count the basket, by the way."