I've had an admittedly difficult time processing the game from Monday night. I did not feel ready to write about it until *looks at time* 12:30 a.m. Friday morning and tried my best not to discuss it too much in the interim. What I did do, in a supreme act of sports self-flagellation, was devour every single article, post, tweet and Facebook post, from either side of the coin, for three straight days.
I was in Indianapolis starting Sunday afternoon, met ESPN star Luke Mueller, had dinner with a friend I've known since I was eight (who went to Duke, the bastard), partied with thousands of Badger fans (many of whom were close personal friends) and attended the game Monday night. My group of four silently left Lucas Oil Stadium after the final buzzer, piled into the car we had driven from Chicago barely 36 hours before, and headed back to the City of Broad Shoulders. Never have I seen a sadder sight (sports division, people, let's keep this in perspective) than when we pulled into a gas station off the highway about 20 miles north of Indy. Everyone there was clad in red and headed north and west to Chicago, or Madison, or Milwaukee, or Minnesota, or just somewhere that wasn't Indianapolis and everyone there was glassy-eyed and quiet. Distressingly so.
I'm pretty sure I bought an Eagles can koozie there (although I've yet to find it in any of my belongings and may have thrown it out) in a misguided attempt to cheer myself up, because when have those clowns ever cheered anyone up? We rolled into Chicago and I into my bed around 3:30 a.m. in the morning and I stayed up until my wife left for work, reading and analyzing box scores and wondering what could have been.
Thoughts on Wisconsin-Duke: I need sleep.
1. Sports are important. I don't need to tell you this, but I do feel I have to state it on record that Wisconsin's loss to Duke mattered to me. I believe sports to be important to people for different reasons.
My phone had died in the first half of the game, and when I finally turned it back on, there were scant few texts. My friends know me well, even the ones that haven't known me for that long. My sister, a proud Duke graduate and former All-ACC lacrosse player, still hasn't asked me about the game.
Sports are weird in their ability to affect people differently. My wife cried as we left the stadium. I did not, but I might as well have been sobbing the way I felt inside. She is a diehard Badger fan and could run circles around the commenters on any Yahoo! or ESPN article about the Badgers if she deigned them worthy of her scorn, but she's only been on board the Badger roller coaster since she was a freshman... and honestly only really cared once she started dating my sorry ass. After the Packers lost in the playoffs this year, a team I don't even cheer for, mind you, she glowered at me through teary eyes, muttering, "This is your fault. It's your fault I care so much."
And we do care too much, don't we? But that's what makes it all worth it, right? When it finally, amazingly, preposterously goes your way? Then you know every dumb game that you woke up for when you were hungover, or every game you went to even though you could have had a nice relaxing evening at home, or every time you gathered friends at your home and cooked for hours in preparation and then Wisconsin lost to Rutgers, then you know that it was worth it.
There were so many reasons that this season made cheering for a sports team worth it. I've got a list of 10 below, but honestly, every time this team laced up their shoes and took the court I felt like I was witnessing something special. Let's forget Monday night in Indianapolis. Let's remember this lovable band of jokers for what they are: the greatest basketball team that has ever worn the cardinal and white.
10. Honorable Mention
So, this is kind of cheating, but whatevs. There are couple of things that didn't make the list that I figured could be combined into the 10th slot on the list. First of all, any time Nigel Hayes got near a microphone during the NCAA tournament was gold, Jerry, gold! He's running game on stenographers all the while dropping words you didn't know the meaning of, nor how to spell.
Come to think of it, any time the starting five were on a dais together was magical. They were self-aware, self-effacing while still managing to offer up some scathing criticisms of the NCAA and make the same boring platitudes about "taking it one game at a time" and "they're a great team with great players" sound new and interesting. Was it Eddie Murphy Raw? Not quite, but it was refreshing to see a team so enjoy each other's company that the players couldn't help but share it with the whole country.
The emergence of Bronson Koenig as the point guard we all hoped he was, was wonderful to behold. He's a stud and will only get better. The entire month of March was a mind-bending run through some of the best teams the nation had to offer and Wisconsin went undefeated. Starting on March 1 against Michigan State, Wisconsin played the KenPom teams ranked 15th, 58th, 21st, 75th, 48th, 15th again, 134th, 38th, 11th and 2nd.
9. Beating Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska twice
These are much bigger rivalries in football, especially Nebraska, but sweeping the Quadrangle of Hate in basketball is no small feat. A win against Wisconsin this year would have been the leading highlight in any of these teams' end-of-the-year highlight video and Wisconsin was just like, "Nah, we're good." Beating your rivals rules. Always.
The teams in this tournament were really good. Wisconsin didn't even play the supposed "toughest teams," but still beat UAB (whom Iowa State fans would probably be good with never hearing from again), Georgetown (who also won a tourney game) and Oklahoma (who made it to the Sweet 16). The other teams in this tournament -- UNC, Butler, UCLA and Florida -- were no slouches, either. OK, maybe Florida. But the rest!
This was also the first "net to cut" for the Badgers. They showed that they were not afraid of the bright lights and big stage, no matter how small and dimly lit the ballroom court was in this tournament.
7. Sam Dekker winning the West Regional Most Outstanding Player award
Dekker's story has been told 1,000 times. You know it and I don't want to rehash it. His games against UNC and Arizona are legendary and this shot... ohhhhhhhh, this shot.
I will never tire of watching that dagger. Regardless of what his decision is, and I honestly think he should turn pro, Dekker should never have to buy a drink in Madison again as long as he lives.
6. Frank Kaminsky winning all of the awards
Consensus first-team All-American, Naismith College Player of the Year, Wooden Award winner, AP Player of the Year, National Association of Basketball Coaches' Player of the Year and United States Basketball Writers Association College Player of the Year (which has the weirdest trophy). Thanks for a great career, Frank. You are the best player in Wisconsin basketball history.
5. Being up nine points on Duke with 13:24 to go in the second half of the national title game
I don't care what anybody says - when Kaminsky made the layup to put the Badgers on top 48-39 and Duke had to call timeout, I knew... well, I guess I didn't. But the buzz at Lucas Oil Stadium was palpable going into that timeout. I, and every other Badger fan there, thought Wisconsin had it. It was a great feeling and one I hope to get again some day. It was easily the fifth-best moment of this season.
4. Winning the Big Ten regular-season title
This is probably too low on the list, but the ease with which the Badgers won the conference regular-season crown almost made it feel like the games weren't even worth playing. There was just such an air of "foregone conclusion" to the Badgers winning this title that almost no one thought it was a major accomplishment. The fact that Wisconsin made the rest of the conference look so silly barely registered on everyone's radar. Winning a conference's regular season is hard. Winning the Big Ten as easily as Wisconsin did hardly ever happens. (looks at 2013-14 standings and sees Michigan won the conference by more games than Wisconsin did this year.) Ugghhhhh, shut up, this is a happy year-end post.
When the bracket came out this year and so many familiar names appeared in Wisconsin's quadrant, many saw it as a slap in the face. I saw it as a chance to make things right. Time to beat Oregon again. Then beat Arizona again. Then, this time, beat Kentucky. The Badgers did all of those things, and beating Arizona, somewhat handily once the second half started, behind Kaminsky and Dekker's sublime performances was one of the finest moments of the season.
While earlier we talked about beating Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa like it was some sort of great accomplishment (when, in reality, those teams are all trash) beating Michigan State in basketball is always delicious. Especially in overtime. Especially in the Big Ten tournament final. Especially when Tom Izzo is sad afterwards.
This was one of the finest games I've ever seen a Badger team play in person. They were down double-digits with 7:46 to go and I, like the true Philadelphia sports fan I am, declared it over. The Badgers clawed back into the game and forced overtime. Then... well then, they shut the Spartans out in overtime and earned their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. I decided after that game that I'll never count these Badgers out, and I didn't. Even when they lost to Duke, I still kinda thought they might add some time to the game and call us all back into the stadium.
This was the best basketball game in Wisconsin Badgers basketball history. Kentucky was 38-0 and Wisconsin was just another speed bump on the Wildcats' way to 40-0 and immortality. That, uh, didn't happen. The Badgers shut down the most talented collection of players in NCAA history and did so in amazing, unbelievable fashion. The cold-blooded Dekker struck again.
The completely destroyed fan in my apartment will attest to the fact that people were excited after this shot. Again, this was the best basketball game in Wisconsin Badgers basketball history and should be the No. 1 moment on any list in relation to Badgers basketball.