In our final installment of Almost Glory, we take a second look at the most recent team this series has seen, Bo Ryan’s final Wisconsin Badgers team.
Coach: Bo Ryan
Record: 36-4 (16-2 in the Big Ten)
Big Ten regular season and tournament champions
- C, Senior, Frank Kaminsky: 18.8 PPG, 8.2 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.5 BLOCKS
- F, Junior, Sam Dekker: 13.9 PPG, 5.5 REB
- F, Sophomore, Nigel Hayes: 12.4 PPG, 6.2 REB
- G, Sophomore, Bronson Koenig, 8.7 PPG, 2.5 AST
Prior to two straight Final Four runs, Bo Ryan’s Badgers featured a number of stellar squads that just couldn’t punch through. There was the ‘04 team that gave UNC all it could handle in the regional final. The ‘07-’08 teams that got snakebitten by UNLV and then Davidson. They lost to Cornell one year, Butler the next, and it was looking like the irascible general with the slicked back hair would never crouch awkwardly on a raised floor on national television.
But then the finest collection of talent ever assembled on a parquet floor in Madison all coalesced at exactly the precise moment.
In 2014, no one really thought it was Wisconsin that would represent the Big Ten in the Final Four. They’d just been blasted by a Michigan State team full of studs in the conference tournament and Michigan was putting a capper on a sterling season. But sometimes the ball bounces your way and, in Wisconsin’s case, it was staring down a skilled but inexperienced Arizona team on their way to Arlington, where they’d fall to a even-less-experienced but way-more-skilled Kentucky squad.
They opened 2015 with the highest expectations for any Wisconsin team in history. They were led by the presumed National Player of the Year, Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, back for an finished business in his senior year, and junior wing Sam Dekker, the second highest recruited player in school history.
Alongside these two future first round draft pick were two young men that I like to call “the wokest players in college basketball”.
This past September, Bronson Koenig traveled to North Dakota to protest the oil pipeline outside Bismarck. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and spurred by his older brother Miles, Koenig cleared his schedule and no doubt risked considerable backlash from racist basketball fans, to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
"I just hope to shed a little light on the issue and bring attention to the issue,'' said Koenig. "My brother asked me 'Do you want to stand with our brothers and sisters and protect the land and water near to our hearts?' I wanted to walk the walk ... My people have been disrespected for the past couple of hundred years.''
Nigel Hayes activism has been more closely related to campus.
“We’re not student athletes. We’re here to play sports. Some of us are missing class to be here right now. In some respect they’re making money off us right now. [Wisconsin] just changed to Under Armour, who just gave us a couple 100 million dollars. I’m sure that’s not enough to pay us for our playing because that’s not enough money.”
A few weeks ago, Hayes and other Wisconsin athletes called on the school’s leadership to address racism on campus.
And just yesterday, Hayes continued protesting during the national anthem.
Talk about using one’s platform to make calls for change.
But two years ago, Hayes and teammates were charming the national media with their obsession over the press conference stenographers on their run to the national title game.
No one really thought they would get there. A rematch with Kentucky, even before the ball was tipped, seemed like it might end in defeat. John Calipari had put together the most insane, impressive collection of athletes a college basketball program has ever seen: Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrison brothers, Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker. It didn’t matter.
Wisconsin came to play that night, going toe for toe with the Wildcats, in a jaw-dropping contest. Every play, it seemed that night, was imbued with a deep and rich meaning: the upperclassmen against the freshman, Midwest against the South, up-and-coming program against the Blue Bloods. That’s all nonsense, of course. Wisconsin has piles of money, geography doesn’t matter in today’s landscape, and a few years age difference doesn’t indicate advanced morality.
But still, the game was great. In a contest that saw Kentucky only attempt 5 three-pointers (seriously, Coach Cal, did you have a game plan at all that involved scoring points?), it was Sam Dekker’s brilliant step-back three that sealed the upset victory for the Badgers.
Two nights later, it wouldn’t hold up. Wisconsin was clearly gassed from their match against Kentucky, while Duke had cruised against Michigan State. It’s true that everyone is tired at the end of a long season, but the Blue Devils had a secret weapon off the bench in Grayson Allen and the Badgers couldn’t counter punch.
Coach K won his 5th national title and Bo Ryan pouted after the game, blaming the officials and (in a gesture of “un-wokeness”) “rent-a-players”. Maybe he could have acknowledged that the team’s very real lack of depth came back to haunt them in the end.
At any rate, Ryan is gone now and this is Greg Gard’s team to shepherd. He could make it happen. Hayes and Koenig will play with a fire in their senior season. Ethan Happ is a big-time sophomore stud. And while this season, as all of them now, will be dominated by phenomenal freshman, Wisconsin has one of the most experienced and battle-tested rosters in all of college basketball.
And a coach who supports his players to speak out. As a Sparty fan, I never thought I’d say this, but it’s time to cheer for Wisconsin.