I remember Wisconsin's run to the Final Four in 2000 -- I ran down to State Street like everybody else -- but as the years pass, my memories aren't as vivid.
What I do know is that Dick Bennett's run was shocking and exhilarating, a true Cinderella story. Led by Mike Kelley's defense and Jon Bryant's shooting, the plucky Badgers nearly pulled off the impossible with barely a hint of a star player on the team. And the state of Wisconsin was so grateful for the chance to come along for the ride that capped off Bennett's Hall of Fame career.
Bo Ryan's Final Four run has been memorable in its own way. The difference is that these Badgers undoubtedly belong. They may be underdogs to a hot, talented Kentucky team that was the preseason No. 1, but beating Oregon, Baylor and top-seeded Arizona in succession proved Wisconsin's top-10 ranking this season was not a fluke. Ryan is a superstar coach himself, and he's got a certain thoroughbred making a strong final turn this season.
Personally, I'm much more invested in this team, having covered Wisconsin basketball for the last eight years. It is just as homegrown as the Kelley and Andy Kowske team, and seems even more likable in my opinion.
Consider the two most criticized players on the team. One is the under-recruited son of a legendary rival who has already nailed three game-winning shots in two years as a starter. The other is a five-star state high school hero. Traevon Jackson and Sam Dekker shouldered the burden of the criticism while the other players have hardly had a bad word said about them.
Coincidentally, during the preseason I was lamenting the lack of cool nicknames on this year's Badger team. Seemed odd for a group I'm claiming is so easy to root for, but it was true.
Then Frank Kaminsky happened. His breakout junior campaign has turned him into a Madison folk hero, spawning a half-dozen of the best monikers of any Wisconsin player I can recall. He brought with him the nickname "Fupps" (or "Big Daddy Fupps," if you're so inclined), which got more publicized this season as a starter. Then, the cursory Old School reference to "Frank the Tank" officially became real the night Kaminsky dropped 43 points on North Dakota. I've also heard "Special K" bandied about. Even #DetectiveFrankKaminsky gained traction over the weekend:
This is when Detective Frank Kaminsky needs to play by his own rules and solve the case of the Final Four berth.— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) March 30, 2014
See, I didn't even need to mention Nigel Hayes' "Chocolate Tornado." Nickname problem solved, I guess.
Needless to say, Kaminsky has become the breakout star of the NCAA Tournament so far. Absolutely incredible, yet totally believable for those that have watched this season. Even before the Elite Eight game, I found myself not only wondering aloud whether Frank was the best Wisconsin big man ever, but rhetorically reconsidering whether this unique blend of skills and personality makes up my favorite Badger of all-time.
If Kaminsky and his teammates win two more games, the answer is going to be yes.
Other than the favorite, Florida, each of the three semifinalists have climbed aboard an absurdly hot player -- Kaminsky, Shabazz Napier for UConn and Aaron Harrison for Kentucky -- and ridden him down to Texas. Of those players, only Kaminsky is an inside-outside dual threat, which Badger fans are hoping makes him less prone to having a bad game on the biggest stage.
Unlike Kaminsky's legacy, the wily Bo Ryan had already cemented his legacy as the best coach in Wisconsin history. If you asked him, he'd say this is where he feels this year's team belongs because of all the work the players have put in. Ryan knows what it takes after all, having scaled similar, albeit smaller peaks at UW-Platteville, where he won more Division III national championships (four) than anyone else ever has. A Final Four berth at the college game's highest level merely served to tie a bow on his perception for the outside world.
He may have gone the entire season without one, yet with all the chips on the line, vintage Bo erupted for two technical fouls in the past three games fighting for his team. But the win does mean a lot to Ryan, whose touching post-game comments about his departed father helped seal the legacy of last Saturday's unforgettable win.
We watched an older, calmer Ryan all year long, in fact. Some wrote that the 66-year-old coach was mellowed by the the loss of his parents in the fall and inspired by the remaining family around him. Ryan can repeat coachisms until blue in the face about the triviality of one game in the grand scheme of a career or life in general and we kind of agree with him. But don't let anyone question how badly Ryan wanted to win these games. He may have gone the entire season without one, yet with all the chips on the line, vintage Bo erupted for two technical fouls in the past three games fighting for his team. Whatever his goal, it worked. And whether for himself, his late father Butch or his players, Ryan earned the right to fight for another 40 minutes.
Ryan and his staff have proved to be wonderful tacticians in this tourney. Their Badgers will arrive in Arlington this week having outscored every opponent in the second half (and overtime) since the end of the regular season. Wisconsin has scored 268 points to the opposition's 187.
Regardless of how little one more win means in terms of his coaching ability, the Elite Eight win over Arizona propelled Ryan's legacy to the next level.
Wisconsin's players have been more than happy to meet him on that level. Jackson has been steadier. Both freshmen in the rotation have made clutch contributions. Josh Gasser is Gasser even when his shot isn't falling. Dekker can make plays no one else on Wisconsin can make. Ben Brust etched his name into the record books during this run and managed to hit his biggest three-pointer to date even on an off night against Arizona.
But no one has shone brighter than Bo Ryan and the 7-footer who finally carried the legendary coach to Division I's biggest stage.