Take a timeout from filling out your bracket and just imagine how things could have been different for the Wisconsin men's basketball team this season.
Was the flu bug that attacked Bo Ryan and his roster in January as influential as rumor has it? Would Badger fans be celebrating a No. 1 seed and a Big Ten title right now if the team had stayed healthier?
What if Florida was at full strength when it came to Madison? How would things be different if Traevon Jackson's shot doesn't fall against Michigan State?
Could the Badgers have survived an injury to a key player and still wound up a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament?
As each season winds along, certain narratives develop and special moments occur that make each team's story unique. When you think back on the 2013-14 regular season, I'm sure several of them jump to mind.
The fact that Josh Gasser returned from a devastating knee injury last season and gutted through all 33 games so far this year has laid the foundation for everything the Badgers have been able to do.
Freshman Nigel Hayes went nuts over a four-game stretch -- averaging 13.5 points and 10 free throw attempts -- that announced his rapid evolution as a player. After beating up Eastern Kentucky and Prairie View A&M, Hayes scored a career-high 19 points against Northwestern and the proved he could do the same against good teams, drawing fouls time and time again versus No. 22 Iowa.
However, when it comes to specific points that altered the course of the narrative and set Wisconsin up for this final chapter, six games stand out above the rest.
6. Wisconsin grinds Virginia to a halt
After seeing an uptick in its scoring and tempo early in the season, the media branded these Badgers as a new breed of Wisconsin team. Heading into Charlottesville's John Paul Jones arena against a talented Virginia squad that had beaten UW a year earlier was no small task. Those expecting a clash of styles were disappointed. Those accustomed to winning were pleased.
Neither side produced any pageant-worthy offense, but Wisconsin proved it could still earn an ugly, hard-fought slugfest just like the good old days. Only later would the nation realize what a quality win this Big Ten-ACC battle was for UW; it became the linchpin of Wisconsin's tourney resume.
5. Jackson finishes Michigan State
Traevon Jackson's performance against the Spartans epitomized everything about the polarizing point guard. Though he had only scored five points and committed five turnovers through 39-plus minutes of action, Ryan still wanted the ball in Jackson's hands in the final seconds with the game knotted at 58. Like he has done numerous times before, Jackson delivered a game-winner.
Vocal critics have plenty of justified ammunition to debate against Jackson supporters, but no one can ever take away those wins Jackson has served up single-handedly with shots like this one. The win temporarily got the Spartan monkey off Bo's back and kept the team from spiraling back down into the hole its had just come out of. Furthermore, the game's finish solidified that, for better or worse, Wisconsin rolls with Trae and he is capable of anything.
4. Badgers pummel Michigan in Ann Arbor
Behind Frank Kaminsky's 25 points and 11 rebounds, Wisconsin jumped all over No. 15 Michigan on Feb. 16 at the Crisler Center and never looked back. A 15-point halftime lead got the team comfortable and Kaminsky shut the door with seven-straight points after the Wolverines had trimmed the lead to three points.
The Badgers maintained their lead by committing only two turnovers for the entire game. With the 13-point victory, Wisconsin cemented its return to the Big Ten title race by pulling within two games of Michigan. It also positioned itself as an elite team again by adding a sixth marquee win to its resume. The Badgers would ride the momentum to a season sweep of Iowa the following weekend.
3. Losing to Northwestern is rock bottom
As you might expect, losing 65-56 to Northwestern at the Kohl Center turned out to be the worst loss of the season for Wisconsin. No matter how hot Northwestern was -- the Wildcats were in the midst of winning four out of five games around that time -- Wisconsin's performance was scariest because it was the first time an offensive collapse was the cause of the wreckage. The Badgers shot 30 percent and score just 0.82 points-per-possession, their lowest mark of the year.
Whether it was a fluke or not the outcome proved there was no quick fix for the hard times UW had fallen into. It was time to dig in and play better in all aspects, or else the season was headed down the tubes. Since I didn't get to watch this game, the moment I received a score update in the final minutes will forever be etched in my mind -- and the pit of my stomach.
2. Kaminsky scores 43
Kaminsky was a good player last season who showed flashes of greatness in limited minutes. But nobody really knew what to expect out of the junior pivot coming into this year. His efficiency was not in doubt because of his ability to step back and his threes. Most people were probably just thinking Kaminsky could be a nice compliment to Sam Dekker on the night Wisconsin hosted North Dakota.
I think Kaminsky officially became "The Tank" after going 10-of-13 from the floor, including a perfect 6-of-6 from 3-point land, to pin a school-record 43 points on UND. Wisconsin won, of course, scoring 103 points and putting the nation on notice that this year's Badgers were fierce offensively. More importantly, however, we saw a different demeanor from Kaminsky. He showed off an impressive arsenal of post moves, did not hesitate, and was calling for the ball. Experiencing this level of success was a confidence-booster which carried over into Kaminsky's first team All-Big Ten campaign that followed. Turns out Kaminsky, not Dekker, was the alpha dog.
1. Indiana exposes UW's defense
Tuesday, January 14 was a wake-up call. A wake-up call that, in retrospect, was sorely needed. The Badgers, ranked No. 3 in the polls and seemingly at the peak of their powers, rode into Bloomington on a 16-game winning streak, having never lost to Tom Crean's version of the Hoosiers. Wisconsin shot well for most of the game and had a 10-point lead nearly seven minutes into the second half. Should be an easy 'W' right?
Oh, so painfully wrong. When it mattered most, the Badgers literally could not get a stop. Yogi Ferrell had his way with pull-up jumpers off the screen-and-roll and dribble penetration in general. But so too did average players like Stanford Robinson. Clearly, something was wrong. The defense was broken.
Wisconsin hung tight. But with confidence in its own defense evaporated, UW's composure on offense slipped too. In a strange role reversal, Indiana had slayed the giant.
Ultimately, though, a team finding out what it lacks in the middle of the season is blessing in disguise. Wisconsin stumbled through a very rough patch of games as each successive team followed IU's game plan and attacked the paint. Eventually, the Badgers began to improve it's ball-screen defense, rediscovered their shooting touch and started a new winning streak. The loss to Indiana started it all. It forced Wisconsin to get better and tougher. And all of it happened with time to spare in the regular season. Now the Badgers can begin the NCAA Tournament on Thursday feeling confident again in how they operate.
So I'll leave you with one final what if ...
If Yogi Ferrell doesn't hit that bonkers, banked in 13-footer or the clutch step-back jumper to seal the win for the Hoosiers, does the pick-and-roll chink in Wisconsin's armor stay hidden for a few more games? Perhaps the Badgers would have held serve against Michigan at home, avoided a few embarrassing losses early on, and risen to No. 1.
That would have guaranteed nothing -- just look at Syracuse! What if Wisconsin had lost to Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana in February instead and limped into the Big Ten tournament? Would you feel the same way about this Badger team then as you do now?
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