Wisconsin’s special two-year run is over but this group will be tough to forget

16 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin put themselves on the map as a national basketball power these last two seasons as a highly-skilled veteran group with big personalities and hilarious quips. They became the team every casual fan in America rooted for during the 2015 Final Four.

Names like “Kentucky” and “Duke” bring a strong sense of distaste to many college basketball fans and it was easy to jump on the Badger bandwagon because they were likable players on and off the floor. Many college hoops fans cringe at the one-and-done era and its gone-too-soon freshman stars. Those fans could take solace in head coach Bo Ryan taking a team filled with multi-year program guys to back-to-back Final Fours.

The story of Wisconsin only became that much more riveting after the Badgers shocked previously unbeaten Kentucky by outplaying them in a national semifinal win earlier in the weekend. A sea of red converged on Indianapolis as the weekend wore on heading into Monday.

But the near-storybook run for Wisconsin came up short. It wasn’t the ending the Badgers had in mind after playing on college basketball’s biggest stage the last two seasons.

“We were one step closer to our goal [from last year]. To be so close to achieving my goal and to have it end in that fashion. It’s all [upsetting],” Wisconsin sophomore guard Bronson Koenig said.

After the national semifinal loss to Kentucky last season, Wisconsin came back for the 2014-15 season more prepared and more hungry to be the team cutting down the nets in the national title game. Senior center Frank Kaminsky elevated himself to the national player of the year while junior forward Sam Dekker made “the leap” during a great stretch of games in the 2015 NCAA tournament. Senior guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson and forward Duje Dukan also knew they had one more chance to finish off something truly special.

Wisconsin fell short of winning a national championship but that doesn’t mean the team — and the memories formed with this group — won’t stick with these players — and college basketball fans — for a long time.

“It’s tough to say anything right now. These guys are my family, and I mean that literally. I don’t mean that hypothetically,” Kaminsky said. “I’ve never been closer to a group of guys in my entire life, from the coaching staff on down to every single player on this team. It’s just going to be hard to say good-bye.”

Saying good-bye is going to be especially difficult for Ryan. The veteran coach recapped what made this Wisconsin group so special while also taking a swipe at the one-and-done era during the postgame press conference on Monday night. Ryan has coached some of these seniors for five seasons thanks to redshirt years and he’s become attached to the group that gave him his best teams ever.

Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes fondly calls Ryan, “Pops” and the easygoing nature of this team eased Ryan’s way with the media this season. The bitterness of coming up short came out of Ryan a little bit after the loss to Duke. Losing these veteran players is going to be tough on him after coming up just short.

“All the seniors that I’ve had — hard to say the word [good-bye],” Ryan said. “But every player that’s played through the program, okay, we don’t do a rent-a-player. You know what I mean? Try to take a fifth-year guy. That’s okay. If other people do that, that’s okay. I like trying to build from within. It’s just the way I am. And to see these guys grow over the years and to be here last year and lose a tough game, boom, they came back. They said what they wanted to do, they put themselves into that position, and they won’t forget this for a long time.”

The media gathering in the Wisconsin locker room tip-toed around the players of a losing team in typical fashion — quietly asking questions while dealing with the delicate emotions of the crushed spirits of college kids.

Dekker sat in front of his locker with his shoes off, looking at the ground and occasionally scanning the room in near shock, his eyes red like the uniform still on his back. Media went about their business interviewing other Wisconsin players as Dekker stared off into space. A media member finally approached Dekker to shake his hand. It wasn’t to ask Dekker questions about the night’s game, or the future, but just a sign of respect from reporter to player after a long season of constant communication.

Other reporters who had grown to enjoy covering the team the last few years came over to pay their respects to Dekker on the memorable two-year run. It was a unique scene in a losing locker room and Dekker handled the situation with grace as he thanked each approaching media member for covering the team.

The dream run for Wisconsin came up short, but the program earned the respect of a nation of basketball fans who enjoyed their unique blend of size and skill. A special group who made a veteran head coach loosen up his personality — and his swing offense — to adapt to the immense talents of this collection of players.

“I hope we made people around the country and around the state proud with what we did,” Koenig said.

Wisconsin could be viewed as a historical afterthought after falling short in the Final Four in back-to-back seasons, but college basketball fans won’t soon forget the talent and personality that shaped a special two-year run.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
7 Comments

LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

Getty Images
4 Comments

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.