2015 NCAA Tournament

12-year old bracket contest winner makes good use of $1,000 gift card from Best Buy

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12-year Sam Holtz beat out more than 11.57 million contestants in the ESPN Bracket Challenge, finishing tied for the top spot as he missed just six games on the entire bracket. Unfortunately for Sam his age meant that he was ineligible for entry into random grand prize drawings for a trip to Maui and a $20,000 Best Buy gift card, but ESPN will be sending him a gift bag for his efforts.

The gift bag wasn’t the only prize Holtz received, as Best Buy decided to give him a $1,000 gift card which was a nice gesture on the company’s part. For anyone, receiving $1,000 to use in an electronics store can be an incredible thing given the number of available options. But Holtz didn’t think selfishly with his gift card.

In addition to getting himself an XBox One, Holtz also “purchased” one to donate to the Make-A-Wish Foundation according to the Lake Zurich (Illinois) Courier.

“I decided to donate one of the XBox One systems to Make-A-Wish because of my cousin Alec,” Sam said. “When he was real little, he was in Make-A-Wish, and back then [23 years ago], people granted his wish of going to Disney World. I thought I’d kind of repay them for what they did for my cousin [who survived his illness and is now an adult].”

That’s an incredible gesture by Sam, as more than a few adults would focus solely on their desires when it comes to how they go about spending prize money. Instead of simply taking care of himself, Holtz made sure to look out for someone else as well. Well done, Sam.

12-year old wins bracket pool but is too young for grand prize drawing

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Filling out a bracket in the aftermath of Selection Sunday is considered to be an annual tradition for many, doing it either for fun or to see how they match up against friends and experts alike. Of course there are also pools and contests, with major websites offering up a variety of prizes to winners that can include money and vacations.

12-year old Sam Holtz of Hawthorn Woods, Illinois managed to finish tied atop the ESPN Bracket Challenge, beating out more than 11.5 million people in the process. That’s quite the achievement for Holtz, who’s currently in sixth grade and missed just six games in the entire bracket.

Unfortunately for Holtz his age prevents him from being entered into the prize drawing, with there being a vacation to Maui and a $20,000 Best Buy gift card being the two prizes up for grabs in the random draw. ESPN rules state that entrants have to be 18 years of age or older in order to be eligible for the prizes.

Sam said ESPN officials told him he’s ineligible to be part of the drawing, but that they would send him a goody bag of ESPN items for coming in first.

The decision “irritated” him, Sam said, but he was “still proud of myself.”

With multiple media outlets looking to speak with him, Sam’s mother kept him home from school for a half-day Tuesday in order to handle the requests according to Lee Filas of the Daily-Herald. Congrats to Sam on his bracket, and hopefully he can duplicate this feat six years down the line when he’ll be eligible for the prizes offered.

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.

ICYMI: This year’s edition of ‘One Shining Moment’ (VIDEO)

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source: Getty Images
Getty Images

For those who may have made the mistake of turning off the television in the immediate aftermath of No. 1 Duke’s national title game victory over No. 1 Wisconsin, here’s this year’s edition of the song of the tournament, “One Shining Moment.”

Video credit: CBS/NCAA

The ‘Wisconsin Way’ – how Badgers rose by developing players in one-and-done era

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source: AP
(AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — The battle of No. 1 seeds for the national championship between Duke and Wisconsin on Monday night will be an extreme contrast of how to build a program and achieve success.

Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have adapted to the one-and-done landscape of elite recruiting, landing future pros who can impact the game from the moment they step on campus. Wisconsin and head coach Bo Ryan aren’t immune to recruiting top-100 players, but they’re more about the multi-year development model where experienced upperclassmen and a tried-and-true culture are a major part of the program’s success.

Case in point: the two best players during the 2014-15 college basketball season will match up with the national championship on the line. Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor was the No. 1 prospect in his class since early in high school and he’s a serious threat to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Wisconsin senior center Frank Kaminsky is a four-year player who hardly made an impact his first two years in school before a breakout junior campaign led to an even better senior season.

Wisconsin’s staff realizes they aren’t going to be in the mix for many McDonald’s All-Americans, and immediate future pros, so they’ve built a foundation around the “Wisconsin Way.”

“We’ve had one McDonald’s All-American (Brian Butch) in 14 years and he redshirted his freshman year,” Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said.

The Badgers have given regular minutes to underclassmen like Devin Harris, and more recently Josh Gasser and Sam Dekker, but those guys had to buy into a team concept that featured veterans who were well established in the program.

Sophomore guard Bronson Koenig was actually offered a scholarship by Duke, as well as North Carolina and Kansas, but chose to attend Wisconsin and stay close to home at a program that could still give him tools to build with. The teachings he received from his older teammates and coaches helped him step into his starting role when senior guard Traevon Jackson went down with a broken foot earlier in the season.

“I think it helped me a lot coming in as a freshman. The upperclassmen did a really good job of putting their trust in me, teaching me how to play under Coach Ryan, and [playing] in the Wisconsin system,” Koenig said. “I’m really thankful for guys like Josh Gasser and Traevon for just helping me out along the way to help me develop into the player that I am now.”

Buying into the team concept isn’t for every blue-chip recruit, which is what makes Wisconsin’s recruitment of players like Koenig and junior forward Sam Dekker so unique. Dekker was a five-star prospect and didn’t really become a go-to scorer for Wisconsin until the later part of this season.

Dekker has had to play second fiddle to older players and wait his turn even though he had the talent coming out of high school to probably play at most of the traditional blueblood programs in college basketball.

“Coach Ryan, the staff, the program, the team is everything I wanted in a program,” Dekker said. “They’re always going to give you a chance to be apart of the NCAA tournament, no matter who the players are on the court.

“Coach Ryan, this legacy he’s building, this tradition of excellence that he’s made at Wisconsin, that’s something that you can’t deny, can’t ignore. One thing I wanted to learn is to become more disciplined and he’s done that and more for me. I’m very privileged to be apart of this program.”

You could say that Wisconsin got lucky landing top-100 in-state players like Koenig and Dekker who had the patience to play a small role in a larger picture, but Wisconsin’s staff tries to identify high-character individuals who are competitive enough to thrive in the (usually) upperclassmen-driven program. Recruiting rankings and star ratings don’t matter; it’s all about the mentality and competitiveness of the player.

“There’s no magic wand or pixie dust that we sprinkle on our guys, but in terms of showing them the process and what the plan is — here’s how we do things, day-by-day, year-by-year, how we work in the offseason,” Gard said.

“It’s the culture and the philosophy and the understanding of the program to build that.”

Others like Kaminsky and Gasser have outplayed their standing coming out of high school. Although both seniors had other high-major scholarship offers, they weren’t coveted players attracting throngs of head coaches at the highest level. Because Wisconsin’s development model puts players at all positions through the same skill work, they evolve as players over their careers in Madison.

Kaminsky, who became National Player of the Year after playing only 271 total minutes his freshman season, is the poster child of what a Wisconsin player can become with patience and tremendous work ethic.

“In our offense, you go inside, outside for guys his size. He’s made the most of being in a program where those are points of emphasis. Develop your total game in different drills.” Ryan said of Kaminsky. “It’s not just like guards can only do this, bigs can only do this. So Frank took advantage of every learning opportunity he had and he just kept making himself better. And he’s going to be even better next year and the year after.”

As Ryan has evolved as a coach — and as a teacher of the game — moving from his traditional swing offense to a more free-flowing offense, his team has become a national powerhouse thanks to a perfect mix of skilled players at all five positions. Wisconsin is one of the few teams in the country who can throw five players on the floor with legitimate size for their positions and all five players can knock down perimeter shots or handle the ball in the open floor.

It’s created a team full of mismatch nightmares and it’s a big reason why the Badgers ended Kentucky’s perfect season en route to a shot at the title.

“It doesn’t matter where you were when you were 16 or 17 years old, it matters where you are now,” Gasser said. “We have proven that we are a pretty good team. We play well together, and we are well coached, so that is all that really matters.”

Healthy Sam Dekker hopes to be a factor against Duke the second time around

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source: Getty Images
(Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — Duke already defeated Wisconsin, 80-70, during the 2014-15 season when the two No. 1 seeds matched up in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 4 at the Kohl Center.

But the Badgers didn’t have the benefit of playing with a healthy Sam Dekker the first time around. After spraining his left ankle during practice on Oct. 24, the junior forward was still limited with a lingering ankle issue during the game against the Blue Devils.

Dekker only played 24 minutes against Duke — while never committing a foul in the game — and was limited to five points and four rebounds. He only attempted five field goals and clearly lacked the explosiveness that we’ve seen from him during his tremendous NCAA tournament run.

“I watched part of that game and I just look different, too,” Dekker said of the first Duke game this season. “I was trying to play my game and wasn’t playing well. I looked real slow. Hopefully I can have a better performance and that’s something I want to do.”

The long recovery from the ankle injury also put Dekker in a different place mentally. After the loss to Duke, Dekker pinned the blame on himself, even though a number of his teammates had off-nights as well. A tremendous offseason and preseason from the junior drew rave reviews from scouts and coaches and everything changed when Dekker got hurt. Suddenly, the game that was starting to come so easy to him was slowed down.

“It definitely was a confidence-shaking injury for him,” Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said. “He was really playing well — phenomenal — during the preseason before we had played any games. He was dominant in practice. Obviously, then he had the injury and he probably came back along a little too soon. He was never fully able to get back in rhythm.

“Sam’s kind of like a track athlete: Everything has to feel good. And I think when he’s feeling good, like he is right now through the last month — and he feels healthier and feels stronger — obviously he’s coming out of the blocks a lot better than November and December.”

Duke also understands that they can’t take Dekker lightly based on how he played in the first matchup. They know he’s a completely different player now. Dekker’s confidence level is very high after career-high scoring totals in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 and following that up with some huge plays in the Final Four against Kentucky.

Blue Devil freshman forward Justise Winslow has been watching a fully healthy Dekker tear up the NCAA tournament and he’s anxious for the challenge of playing against him at 100 percent.

“I’ve seen him at full strength and that’s what’s scary about him. It’s his ability to perform, especially on the big stage,” Winslow said. “He was [injured] in our first meeting, so you can’t really take a lot away from that and his performance because he was injured. I’m just looking forward to facing him at 100 percent.”

The personnel for both Duke and Wisconsin has changed since December. Rasheed Sulaimon scored 14 points for the Blue Devils against the Badgers and he’s no longer with the Duke basketball program. Traevon Jackson had a season-high 25 points for Wisconsin and he’s only playing a few minutes a game now after recovering from a broken foot.

Dekker is the key difference maker the second time around for the Badgers. He’s elevated himself into the NBA lottery conversation and is one of four projected lottery picks, according to Draft Express, playing in the national championship game.

Wisconsin and Dekker are feeling as confident as ever now that he is injury free and elevating his play to a new level.

“Hopefully this time we will be better,” Dekker said. “Justise Winslow is obviously a great defender but it shouldn’t matter who is in front of me; I still expect myself to play well. I just need to play up to my potential in that game and I’m confident I can do it.