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Friday, April 19, 2024
Given previous success, Badgers are villains against RIT in Frozen Four
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Given previous success, Badgers are villains against RIT in Frozen Four

It's the perfect Cinderella story: the small hockey program comes to the NCAA hockey tournament as an unheralded underdog from a weak conference, playing in a bracket that features the powerhouse many experts picked to win the national title. Despite those doubters and long odds, however, the team rallies to not only defeat that heavily-favored squad, but earns itself a trip to the Frozen Four. Just like that, the little school that could is two wins away from a national title.

That's the situation the Rochester Institute of Technology finds itself in as the team heads to Detroit for the Frozen Four.

The Tigers were a No. 4 seed that knocked off No. 1 seed (and national title favorite) Denver in the East Regional before taking down New Hampshire to win a spot in the NCAA semifinals. Like Bemidji State last year, RIT is the darling of the Frozen Four, the kind of team that wouldn't surprise you if it had Emilio Estevez behind the bench and Air Bud in its lineup.

So as Wisconsin gets ready to face the Tigers in the national semifinals at Ford Field Thursday, they had better throw out all their love for the underdog. Nobody rooted for the MonStars in ""Space Jam"" or Drago in ""Rocky IV,"" but that's the position Badger fans are in now while their team fights for a national title.

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As sports fans, we're naturally drawn to good storylines, and those hardly ever involve the favorites doing just as well as they should.

All four No. 1 seeds making it to the Final Four in the NCAA basketball tournament a couple of years ago? The Yankees winning the World Series last fall? Who the hell cares. We want to see little George Mason take down mighty Connecticut, the Cardinals in the Super Bowl and the Devil Rays in the World Series.

Denver fans probably wanted to see some small program go to the Frozen Four this year, but they would rather it come at the expense of another No. 1 seed. Sure, a No. 4 in the semifinals would be great—as long as it was Alabama-Huntsville or Vermont, not RIT, who crushed the Pioneers' title dreams.

It would be nice to see the Tigers win a national title: that would be great exposure for college hockey as a sport and it would be a heck of an ending to a season that deserves the Disney treatment. But this year, when Wisconsin has such a great shot at the championship, Badger fans will not be kind to the underdog.

Obviously there isn't going to be a Wisconsin hockey fan out there that puts aside the team they have been cheering for all year to root for RIT, but maybe people will have a soft spot for the program. That's just the way we're wired: to cheer for the small team everyone counted out.

Badger hockey fans must face facts—Wisconsin has a prolific hockey history dotted with All-Americans, NHL superstars and, yes, six national titles. Right now, they're the bad guys, and they do not want to end up on the wrong side of history.

One blogger commented that the Badgers will essentially play a road game at neutral Ford Field, since everyone there will want RIT's run to continue, and they're right. Miami and Boston College fans will not want Wisconsin to move on, partially because the Badgers winning means playing a (theoretically) better team in the championship game, but more because the Tigers' great story will have ended and the historically great programs will be back on top again.

Maybe if the Badgers played the RedHawks or Eagles for a national title that would be a better hockey game, but would it be a better story? Surely RIT being 60 minutes away from the championship would make it higher up on SportsCenter than two legendary programs facing off.

Unless it's your team, cheering for the favorite is counterintuitive. It's like rooting for someone in Stanford's Band to tackle Cal's Kevin Moen in ""The Play,"" for Dennis Eckersley to strike out Kirk Gibson instead of his walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series or for Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh to miss the three that doomed Kansas just a couple of weeks ago.

This weekend, however, Wisconsin fans must be ready to embrace the villain's role: crushing RIT's hopes and moving one step closer to a seventh title. Put simply, they will have to hope Mike Eaves, Blake Geoffrion and Brendan Smith were the kind of guys who cheered for the Yankees—not the Bad News Bears.

Nico has no fear of the underdog, is that why he will not survive? E-mail him at savidgewilki@wisc.edu.

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