INDIANAPOLIS — Never in college basketball history have we seen the hype machine reach the levels it did in the six days between the end of the Elite 8 and the start of the Final Four.
Tom Izzo and Coach K squaring off. Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, again. Jahlil Okafor and Karl Towns and Frank Kaminsky. A Final Four in which Bo Ryan can be called the “worst” of the four coaches still working.
And, to cap it off, the seemingly inevitable meeting between Duke and the 39-0 Wildcats on Monday, a battle between the nation’s two most high-profile programs and coaches with nothing but a national title and undefeated season on the line. It’s the matchup that everyone — from casual fans to North Carolina and Louisville — wanted to see, and once Kentucky had completed their second comeback of the night, using a 16-4 run to take a 60-56 lead with five minutes left, it looked like that’s precisely what we were going to get.
Then, those shot clock violations happened.
And Sam Dekker’s three went down.
And, suddenly, Wisconsin had themselves a 71-64 win and a date with Duke with a title on the line.
Press row was abuzz, as every hack with a press pass pounded out words on their keyboard, trying to do justice to what may just end up being the greatest game they ever cover. Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection was the single-biggest story of the 2014-15 season, and all it took was those final five minutes to turn the previously unbeatable Wildcats to 38-and-Done. If the Badgers go on to win on Monday, Saturday’s game will assuredly be mentioned in the same conversation as Duke’s win over then-undefeated UNLV in the 1991 Final Four and Team USA’s win over Russia in hockey in the 1980 Olympics: semifinal wins that no one ever remembers happened in a semifinal.
It’s just … no one actually told Wisconsin they weren’t supposed to be able to win. The Badgers weren’t celebrating the way their fans were. In the locker room after the game, there were plenty of smiles, but that was about it. No dancing. No partying. As assistant coach Greg Gard put it, “no one got Gatorade dumped on them,” because as incredible as that win was, it really didn’t mean anymore to the Badgers than the win over No. 16 Coastal Carolina three weeks ago did. It was just another step in the process of trying to win a national title.
As long as the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium are still dangling off of the rim, the Badgers have not yet accomplished what they set out to do.
“We’ll enjoy it for a little while here tonight, but we know what’s in store on Monday night,” Gard added. “They were pretty quiet [when they got back to the locker room]. They celebrated out on the court because of the moment and the environment.”
“They know. They know we’ve got one more game to accomplish our goal.”
The difference lies in how Wisconsin viewed this Kentucky team. The media, the fans, everyone outside of that Badger locker room, we all saw the Wildcats as this force of nature, this team with more size than most NBA teams and, arguably, more future NBA players than the other three teams in Indianapolis combined. But it was more than that. The Wildcats almost felt like a team of destiny. Not only were they insanely talented, but they were winning — escaping? — each and every time they got tested. Ole Miss couldn’t beat them when they had a shot to win at the end of regulation. Texas A&M couldn’t, either. LSU had them down six late in the second half and missed a three at the buzzer that would have won the game. Georgia had them down late in the second half. Notre Dame was up six with five minutes left.
And every time, Kentucky found a way to win.
It wasn’t so much that Kentucky was unbeatable, it was that the Wildcats, despite their youth and despite the constant, and usually erroneous, criticisms of their head coach’s ability as an in-game tactician, always made the plays they needed to make to get to the next game with a zero on the right side of their record.
40-0 was inevitable.
That’s how the rest of the country saw it, anyway.
But not Wisconsin.
“Obviously, they were undefeated,” Bronson Koenig said, “but we didn’t look at their record or anything like that.”
“We’re not surprised we were in this situation,” Dekker said. “This is something we’ve been talking about since day one this season.”
The Badgers didn’t look across the court and see a juggernaut. What they saw was a team that, a year ago, beat them by a single point thanks to an Aaron Harrison 25-foot three that barely missed being blocked by Josh Gasser.
“What do you mean we’ve done something that nobody’s ever done?” Ryan asked a reporter in response to a question on Saturday night. “It’s a nice feeling to know that you’ve got a chance. A little bit better than Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. There were times where it was a million-to-one, but not this time.”
This is who Wisconsin is. All week long — all tournament and all season long, really — they’ve become that lovable group of nerds that talk non-stop about Super Smash Bros and FIFA, the guys that went viral because they’re obsessed with the NCAA-provided stenographers. They’ve talked all week long about how they can goof off and joke around and act like your typical frat boys until that ball gets rolled out.
Maybe they just didn’t realize they weren’t supposed to be the team of destiny in this Final Four.
“I’m going to tell a little bit of a story here,” Kaminsky said at the press conference, a story that perfectly sums up who this Badger team is. “I was playing FIFA in the room, you know, we had so much time today, one of my buddies from back home came and we were talking, Alex Flood. He said if I had 20, Sam had 16 or 18, Nigel would have 12, and either Bronson or Josh would add 10 or 12, we would win by seven points, that’s exactly what happened.”
“It’s just too weird not to bring up, how the game ended, how the numbers worked out, it was perfect.”