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

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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.

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Creighton, Kentucky, Illinois earn big road wins

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College basketball saw some big results in the Big East and Big Ten on Tuesday night. Road wins from Illinois and Creighton left a big impression. Kentucky, meanwhile, kept the strong road-win theme of the night going with a strong win at LSU in the SEC.

No. 15 Creighton takes down No. 19 Marquette

Perhaps the night’s biggest win went to No. 15 Creighton. The Bluejays held off No. 19 Marquette for a crucial Big East road win.

Ty-Shon Alexander shook off a first-half shot to the jaw to finish with 22 points. And Creighton did a strong job of defending Markus Howard. The nation’s leading scorer was limited to 13 points in the loss.

The win gives Creighton a legitimate shot to win at least a share of the Big East title. I examined more on the Bluejays here.

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Ayo Dosunmu’s return lifts Illinois over No. 9 Penn State

The night started with Illinois snapping a four-game Big Ten losing streak. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu’s return fueled a critical 62-56 road win for the Illini at No. 9 Penn State.

After a scary knee injury against Michigan State last Tuesday, Dosunmu missed the Illinois loss to Rutgers over the weekend. The guard looked healthy in his return to the Illinois lineup. Dosunmu paced the Illini with 24 points. With the shot clock winding down with under a minute left, Dosunmu buried a runner to help seal the win.

Dosunmu’s return also helped Illinois immensely on the defensive end. Penn State only shot 36 percent from the floor and 21 percent from three-point range. The Illini threw length at the Nittany Lions on the perimeter. And the size of Kofi Cockburn (15 points) enabled Illinois to defend Mike Watkins (eight points) one-on-one. Life was also tough for Lamar Stevens during a 3-for-11 night. In a grind-it-out game where both teams went scoreless for minutes at a time, Illinois looked like a top-30 defense in a huge road game.

At this point in the season, Illinois is still a full three games out of the Big Ten lead. It’s unlikely the Illini can jump four or five teams to vault into first. But this is also a very dangerous team if they can get hot.

Starting Big Ten play at 8-2, Illinois already showed they’re capable of running off six or seven wins in a row in the deepest conference in the country. Although one win at Penn State doesn’t put Illinois back in contention it gives a dangerous team confidence.

The next two for Illinois are winnable games against bottom feeders in Nebraska and Northwestern. From there, it’s a three-game sprint to the finish with Indiana, at Ohio State and Iowa. With only one road game against a top Big Ten team, Illinois will be a fascinating team to track the next few weeks.

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No. 10 Kentucky gets past LSU

In the SEC, the Wildcats kept their lead with a strong road win at LSU. The win gives Kentucky a two-game lead in the loss column on LSU. Auburn remains in second in the league at a game behind Kentucky.

The road win also gives the Wildcats another quality win. Winners of nine of their last 10 games, Kentucky looks like a team that is figuring things out down the stretch. Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley has turned into the team’s most consistent scorer the past several weeks.

Quickley led Kentucky with 21 points on Tuesday night to lead the Wildcats. Establishing Nick Richards on the interior is still Kentucky’s best route to earning a win. But Quickley scoring at least 12 or more points in 14 straight games is something to track going forward.

Richards dominating on the inside and Quickley’s consistent scoring on the perimeter has given the Wildcats more of an established identity during the stretch run.

No. 15 Creighton takes down No. 19 Marquette

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Creighton earned a massive Big East road win by holding off No. 19 Marquette 73-65 on Tuesday night.

Ty-Shon Alexander fought through an early-game throat injury to finish with a team-high 22 points to pace Creighton. The Bluejays did an admirable job defending Marquette star Markus Howard as well. Holding the nation’s leading scorer without a point in the first half, Howard struggled to 13 points on 4-for-14 shooting on the night.

The win keeps the No. 15 Bluejays firmly in the Big East title race. Creighton remains one game behind Seton Hall in the loss column with two weeks to go in the regular season. And with four games left on the schedule, Creighton only plays one game away from home — a winnable game at St. John’s. The regular season closes in Omaha with the Bluejays facing a Pirates team they just beat on the road last week.

NBC SPORTS BRACKETOLOGY

Creighton has gone early-season afterthought to potentially winning one of the toughest top-to-bottom leagues in the country. It’s come with a roster that is continually evolving as the season moves along.

Once transfer forward Denzel Mahoney entered the mix for Creighton the Bluejays turned into a different team. Mahoney became eligible for Creighton after missing the first 10 games of the season after sitting out from Southeast Missouri State.

The 6-foot-5 junior isn’t recognized as one of Creighton’s most talented offensive players. Mahoney only scored nine points and collected five rebounds in the win over Marquette on Tuesday. Alexander, point guard Marcus Zagorowski and veteran shooter Mitchell Ballock are all more gifted offensive weapons than Mahoney.

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But Mahoney gives the Bluejays something they’ve greatly lacked in recent seasons: a junkyard dog who can defend up to all five spots on the floor. In the modern small-ball world of basketball, Mahoney is versatile enough to do damage without anything getting run for him. He’s the Big East equivalent to Draymond Green during the Warriors’ dynasty.

Greg McDermott is known for his offensive-minded approach as Creighton’s coach. The man tailored an entire college offense around his son. Doug McDermott became one of college basketball’s greatest modern scorers.

Creighton teams don’t often feature rugged and physical players like Mahoney. With Mahoney’s added edge, however, Creighton has been one of the best teams in the country after the first month of the season.

The Bluejays can bury you offensively at multiple spots. This team moves the ball as well as anybody in the country. And now Creighton has unique lineup versatility that is very tough to prepare for. Mahoney can play small-ball five and give the Bluejays all sorts of different combinations. It’s helped make Creighton one of the best teams in college basketball that nobody is talking about.

Very quietly, the Bluejays are in position to play themselves for a share of the Big East title with a final home game against Seton Hall.

Illinois outlasts No. 9 Penn State

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ayo Dosunmu felt well enough during warm-ups to return to lineup. That was enough for Illinois against No. 9 Penn State.

Dosunmu, the Fighting Illini’s leading scorer who missed the previous game with a knee injury, scored 24 points, and Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak with a 62-56 victory over Penn State on Tuesday night.

“He knows we struggled without him,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “He did what really, really good players do. He elevated his game.”

Kofi Cockburn added 14 points for the Fighting Illini (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten), who led most of the way and ended Penn State’s eight-game winning streak.

NBC SPORTS BRACKETOLOGY

The win also snapped Illinois’ six-game losing streak against Penn State.

Lamar Stevens scored 13 points for the Nittany Lions (20-6, 10-5), who entered with their highest ranking in the AP Top 25 since they were No. 9 at the same point of the 1996 season.

Izaiah Brockington added 10 points for the Nittany Lions, who trailed 30-26 at halftime and by as many as nine points with 5:35 to play.

Penn State got a pair of free throws from Seth Lundy that cut its deficit to 58-56 with a minute left, but Dosunmu iced it with a layup 30 seconds later.

The Nittany Lions made just 21 of 58 shots, well below their 45% average. Penn State shooters made just 4 of 19 3-pointers.

“We haven’t shot this poorly the way we’ve been playing,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Obviously, that was shocking to me.”

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It was back-and-forth early as teams swapped the lead five times in the first. The Illini controlled play for 9:06 and Griffin gave them their biggest lead of the half when he hit a 3-pointer, drew a foul and hit the ensuing free throw to put the Illini up 21-16 with 8:54 before halftime.

Penn State used an 8-1 run, capped by a steal and dunk by Lundy, to retake the lead 4:22 later.

But Illinois got eight straight points from Dosunmu before a put-back by Giorgi Bezhanishvili to go up 30-26 at the break.

“This is definitely a reality check,” Penn State guard Myles Dread said. “We’ve been on cloud nine for eight games. As good as it feels to win, it feels much worse to lose.”

EXHALE AND EXALT

Illinois players hooted, shrieked and hollered as they filed off the court and into the Bryce Jordan Center’s visiting locker room.

The celebration continued when Underwood and the rest of the coaches entered. They praised their team’s resilience and highlighted Da’Monte Williams’ defensive efforts against Stevens, who was 3 for 11 from the floor.

“We had won seven in a row and you become the hunted,” Underwood said. “We’re not desperate. I think there was some urgency, but desperate is never in my vocabulary.”

ROUGH PLAY

Watkins picked up a technical foul for shoving Dosunmu shortly after the whistle as both had been jostling for a loose ball.

Watkins’ temper had been rising in the moments leading up to their confrontation. Penn State’s big forward was surly after he had drawn physical coverage down low on his previous two shot attempts and failed to get foul calls

The sequence drew the ire of Penn State fans who booed the officiating crew as they disappeared into the tunnel for halftime and again when they emerged for the second half.

THE BIG PICTURE

Illinois: For the Illini, getting Dosunmu back certainly helped. The sophomore guard had missed Saturday’s loss at Rutgers after suffering an injury to his left knee is a win over Michigan State on Feb. 11. Despite their recent shooting woes, they looked confident against a strong Penn State defense that’s been nearly flawless at home.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions entered a game behind Maryland in the hunt for the Big Ten’s top seed. There’s still plenty of time for them to recover and make up ground.

UP NEXT

Illinois: Hosts Nebraska on Monday.

Penn State: Visits Indiana on Sunday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

All-out brawl mars the end of Jackson State-Prairie View A&M game

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After a chippy end to Prairie View A&M’s 70-61 win over Jackson State on Monday night, several players were involved in a fight that came after the buzzer sounded and knocked over fans sitting courtside.

The skirmish started during the handshake line, when Jackson State’s Dontelius Ross appeared to take exception to something that was said by Prairie View’s Darius Williams. He was initially held back, but the melee continued elsewhere on the floor.

Here is another angle of the brawl:

Monday’s Things To Know: Kansas is ready for Baylor, UNC drops another heartbreaker

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Monday was a slow night for college basketball, but we did get a couple of fun finishes around the country.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. NORTH CAROLINA’S HEART-BREAKING SEASON CONTINUES

No team in the country has suffered more soul-crushing losses than the Tar Heels have this season.

Remember when they lost to Virginia Tech in double-overtime? Remember when they lost to Clemson in the Dean Dome for the first time ever because Roy Williams forgot to tell his team to foul up three? What about the time they lost to Boston College because Brandon Robinson sprained his ankle while “fouling” a three-point shooter with 17 seconds left? We all remember the collapse against Duke, but did you see Tomas Woldetensae’s game-winning three for Virginia on Saturday?

And if that wasn’t enough, the Tar Heels lost at Notre Dame on Monday night when Nate Laszewski hit a three with 1.8 seconds left for a 77-76 win in South Bend.

That is now six straight losses for the Tar Heels, if you’re scoring at home. Four of the six are one possessions losses. They lost by six at Florida State in a game they led by eight late in the first half, too. They are really not all that far away from being a team with a pretty good record, but as it stands, they are now going to finish the season under .500.

It’s been a tough, tough season for the Tar Heels.

2. ZACH FREEMANTLE SAVES XAVIER

Zach Freemantle, a freshman forward for the Musketeers, scored four points in the final 10.4 seconds as Xavier landed a key win at St. John’s on Monday night.

The Musketeers are still fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament. They do have some room to spare right now, but if they can find a way to win out during the regular season, the Musketeers will have a shot of climbing up past the 8-9 game. They’ve now won four of their last five games.

3. DEVON DOTSON SHOWS OUT AS KANSAS IS FINDING A RHYTHM OFFENSIVELY

Kansas has picked a great time to get hot.

On Saturday, the Jayhawks put up 87 points — the most points they have scored in regulation against a high-major opponent this season — in a 17 point win over Oklahoma on Saturday. They shot 11-for-22 from three in that game.

On Monday, they Jayhawks put up 91 points after shooting 12-for-27 from three against Iowa State. Marcus Garrett scored 24 points on Saturday. Devon Dotson scored 29 points on Monday.

Why is this important?

Because the Jayhawks play No. 1 Baylor in Waco on Saturday. When these two teams last faced off, the Bears beat the Jayhawks 67-55 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. They’ll be ready for the rematch.