When the NCAA Tournament started, there was one villain: Kentucky. Kentucky, for the uninitiated, is coached by a used-car salesman who collected McDonald’s All-Americans like Robert Durst collected bodies.
The Wildcats went through the entire regular season “undefeated, not perfect,” a phrase oft-repeated by John Calipari, the team’s coach. However, at the end of the day, the team’s 34-0 record spoke for itself. Tattoos were inked and shirts were printed that read “40-0,” an as yet unachieved mark by any team in college basketball history.
Then, on the biggest stage, with four teams remaining, they lost. Not only did they lose, but they lost to my future alma mater.
Throughout the whole tournament, one by one, thousands of alumni and fans from schools across the country watched their teams bow out of the ruthless single-elimination tournament. Somehow, after winning 35 games against just three losses, here my Badgers were, underdogs in the Final Four, in the exact same position we were one year ago, with virtually the same team. Only this time, they won.
Waiting for the Badgers is Duke, the most hated team in college basketball. Few would argue with that. Ever since Coach K took over, Duke has been a perennial power whose floor-slapping arrogance makes them a prime target for universal hatred and documentaries about that exact thing.
While Las Vegas may deem the Badgers are the favorite, a Dec. 3 visit to Madison from the Blue Devils led to the only home loss of the season for Wisconsin. The game was a resounding 10-point defeat, which saw Duke catch fire from inside and outside. Sure, Sam Dekker was hobbled with a bad ankle and Bronson Koenig was a shell of the player he’d become. But there it was: A double-digit home loss to the evil empire.
In his press conference on Sunday, coach Bo Ryan told the media that the woman’s hockey coach had reminded him of the United States win over the Soviet Union in the semifinals, not the finals. That woman’s hockey coach is none other than “Miracle” Mark Johnson, the man who scored the go-ahead goal against Finland in the gold medal game.
As Ryan reminded reporters, Finland wasn’t a bad team in itself, and making the gold medal game is no small achievement. But would movies be made about a team that got a silver medal?
Probably not. Wisconsin had a chance to be a historical footnote, being the team that beat Kentucky on their road to perfection. But now, they have a chance to write their own history.
Their achievements need no qualifier, as the team’s 36 wins this season are a school record. And making the national championship game is an achievement in itself. A 74-year gap between title game appearances for Wisconsin has summoned tales passed down from generation-to-generation.
But they call them storybook endings for a reason, and because of that, people well beyond Sheboygan and La Crosse will be on Wisconsin’s side, if only for 24 hours.
Their starting lineup features anything you’d need in a standard America’s Team. A fifth year senior who recovered from tearing his ACL and MCL and carries the nickname “Captain America.” Another senior who spurned the “boring” NBA to get one more chance at a national title. (Bonus points: He goes by “Frank the Tank.”) A junior five-star recruit who committed to Wisconsin after his sophomore year of high school, and goofball sophomore who will try to trip up a stenographer by using huge words and accidentally hit on a reporter to boot.
Against them is a team of history and inevitable victory and acquired derision. Wisconsin basketball before 1999 had seen the NCAA Tournament just four times.
By the time this is published, bars across the great state of Wisconsin, will be packed to the gills with fans anxious for another shot at Duke. Today, it’ll be no different than almost any other bar in America.