We did it, gang. Bo Ryan finally brought the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four. The haters who never thought Wisconsin could make a deep run in the tournament took a seat as Frank Kaminsky and company came alive in March to give Badger fans one heck of a run. While it didn't end with a national title, this season gave Badger fans a lot to be proud of. Here's my list of Wisconsin's three best games from this past season.
(Please have this song playing in the background as you read)
3. Wisconsin 85, Oregon 77 (3/22/14)
After demolishing American University in the first round, Wisconsin faced a threatening Oregon team in the round of 32. The two teams had very different styles. Oregon's small lineup played at a hectic and frenetic pace. What they lacked in height and rebounding, they made up for in speed and athleticism. Even though on paper, Wisconsin was the better team, something about that matchup nightmare gave me some trepidation before this game. This also was Wisconsin's first official test in the tournament. After last year's debacle to Ole Miss, no one knew how the Badgers would respond to top competition come March.
In the first half, Oregon dominated. Their fast break and transition defense made the Badgers look completely out of sorts. Oregon's offense was solid both inside and outside. Because they attacked the basket so hard, they made 14 free throws in the first half. Their attacks opened up some perimeter shooting, which Oregon simply couldn't miss. More often than not, they weren't even good looks, but they fell nonetheless.
Oregon took a 12-point lead into the half, and things looked bleak for the Badgers. But you knew something had to give. You knew that Oregon couldn't maintain that pace for a full 40 minutes. You knew that their ridiculous jumpers were bound to rim out at some point.
Wisconsin came out of the gates in the second half, ready to turn it around. The leader of that charge was Franklin Delano Kaminsky (not his actual name). They fed him on the low block, and allowed him to overpower the smaller Oregon frontcourt. A Kaminsky three with 15 minutes remaining in the second half sent the crowd into a frenzy as the Badgers made it a 1-point game (don't forget this game was played in Milwaukee, and was essentially a Badger home game).
Oregon fell cold from the outside as Wisconsin's offensive patience finally paid off. Ben Brust's shooting late in the game kept the Badgers comfortably ahead. That performance was extra special because he set the school record for career 3-pointers with his clutch three to give the Badgers a 77-75 lead with just over a minute left. Then, Traevon Jackson cooly put the Ducks away with his late-game free throws.
A win like that proved Wisconsin could win games they weren't supposed to: a hallmark of a successful basketball team. It gave this team confidence that they belong among the best in the country.
2. Wisconsin 75, Michigan 62 (4/16/14)
Remember this performance? When Wisconsin went into Ann Arbor and kinda blew out the Wolverines? Don't forget that this game wasn't too far removed from Wisconsin's late January/early February slump. Although Wisconsin rode a 3-game winning streak into Ann Arbor before this game, this team's identity wasn't totally clear. Were they the team we saw go 16-0? Or were they the team that loses by 9 against Northwestern at home? This victory proved that Wisconsin can and would make a run in March.
Upon looking back at this game, two individuals stand out: Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky. A blind look at the box score doesn't tell the full story of what this game meant for both of these players.
Jackson went 1-6 from the field in 37 minutes, but played one of the best games of his season. How could that be possible, you ask? This game demonstrated that Jackson finally figured out his role on offense. He's not the most prolific scorer, but he doesn't need to be. Although he shot 1-6, he was 7-8 from the free throw line, had 6 assists, 0 turnovers, and held Derrick Walton Jr. to a scoreless performance. In some strange, Traevonian way, that was his best game of the season. The numbers don't look pretty, but his performance over Michigan proved how much he developed as a player.
This was Kaminsky's breakout game (excluding the 43 points against North Dakota). He had 25 points on 11-16 shooting and 11 rebounds. He'd been playing decent throughout conference play, but this was the first time where Wisconsin fans saw Kaminsky as a legitimate threat to score late in the shot clock. During their slump, Wisconsin lacked that go-to offensive threat. Him taking over against Michigan proved he could be that go-to guy. That kicked off Frank's magical run late in the season, but no one expected it to culminate into this...
1. Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63 (OT) (3/29/14)
Look at that box score. How the hell did Wisconsin win this game? Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust, Josh Gasser, and Sam Dekker combined for a 2-12 performance from behind the arc. Freshman stud Nigel Hayes played a paltry 16 minutes, and went only 2-8 in his time on the court. How did they beat one of the best teams in the country?
He obliterated Kaleb Tarczewski all game long. When Tarczewski would give him room to operate, Kaminsky would either bury a three or drive right past him for an easy layup. When Tarczweski would body him up, Kaminsky would back him down for a gimme right around the rim. Arizona had no answer for Frank Kaminsky that night. His 28 point, 11 rebound performance will go down in Wisconsin lore as one of the best individual performances in team history.
Arizona made this victory difficult, but oh so sweet. Aaron Gordon manhandled Sam Dekker on the boards, as he grabbed 18 rebounds. Yeesh. But Dekker did a fine job preventing Gordon from contributing too much offensively. The majority of Arizona's offense game from guard Nick Johnson and 6th man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Both Hollis-Jefferson and Bo Ryan hail from Chester, PA, which gave this game an extra little flavor. Every time Arizona needed a putback or a layup around the rim, Hollis-Jefferson was there. The shots he made were pretty much insane.
In OT, Ben Brust finally woke up and buried a three to break the 54-54 tie. Then, during Arizona's last chance, Nick Johnson got called for an offensive foul. Turnover. Wisconsin ball.
With that, the Badgers sealed the victory and punched their tickets to Dallas. It was the perfect culmination to a heck of a season.
Did you get a little misty reading that? I sure hope so. The 2013-14 Wisconsin season was one we won't soon forget. Get ready for even more memories next year.