INDIANAPOLIS—Wisconsin is loose. They enter a pregame press conference already in a fit of giggles, and eventually pull the rest of the media in with them. It’s at the point where even head coach Bo Ryan is cracking jokes, worrying his guys are “too tense.”
The Badgers have just defeated Kentucky, an achievement that would be season-defining for virtually any team in the country. The national final awaits. And here the Badgers are laughing like they’re sitting around in an old dorm room.
This demeanor could create worries the team is too loose, that it is “satisfied.”
Anyone thinking that hasn’t paid attention to a word these guys have said all year, and definitely didn’t hear what they had to say last night.
“We wanted to win a national championship and [Kentucky was] the team we had to play,” said sophomore forward Nigel Hayes. “Inevitably we would have to end that streak if we wanted to reach that goal. The fact we were able to do that against a great team was definitely secondary, but we'll take it.”
Wisconsin’s goal was never taking down Kentucky specifically, it was winning a title. With a single game remaining, they have their chance.
Their final opponent is a familiar one: Duke.
Last December, the Blue Devils walked into the Kohl Center and put on an offensive clinic, led by freshman guard Tyus Jones’ 22 points. It was a deflating 80-70 loss for the Badgers, a missed opportunity to cement themselves as a nationally elite team for the rest of the season.
Duke made 65.2 percent of its field goal attempts and 58.3 percent of its 3-point attempts. UW will get a chance at revenge like they did against Kentucky, just on a smaller scale and a bigger stage.
“I think we are better. I think both teams are better. Over the course of a season you go through a lot of changes and you learn a lot and grow together,” said junior forward Sam Dekker. “If you asked a bunch of guys on the team they would say they didn’t play the way they wanted to. Obviously we are going to want to come out and play better basketball against a great opponent. Hopefully they won’t shoot quite as well as they did at our place.”
As hyped as Kentucky was entering the Final Four, Duke may yet be more talented. The Blue Devils feature freshman center Jahlil Okafor, a strong candidate to hear his name called first in this summer’s NBA Draft. Fellow freshmen Jones and Justise Winslow also possess the talent to be a lottery pick. In total, the team has nine McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster.
On the other hand, the Badgers have played a total of 17 McDonald’s All-Americans in its last three games, while sporting none of their own.
“It doesn’t matter where you were when you were 16 or 17 years old, it matters where you are now,” said redshirt senior guard Josh Gasser. “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.”
During the game, Kaminsky will square off with Okafor in a battle of Wooden Award finalists. Okafor is the most advanced low-post scorer in a generation, and Kaminsky the era’s most offensively versatile big man.
Every other position will be a battle between two of the best starting lineups in college basketball. Duke holds the bench edge just like many of Wisconsin’s opponents, but the Badgers counter with an ability to attack the interior, something the Blue Devils have struggled with throughout the season.
Where we stand now, the Badgers are near the end of the greatest season in program history. The Kentucky game will stand in the living memory of every Badger fan. But there’s one more game, and Ryan won’t let anyone forget thanks to a fellow UW-Madison coach.
Ryan recalled women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson, a star on the famous Miracle on Ice hockey team of the 1980 Olympics. Everyone remembers the Russia upset, but that was just the semifinal of the tournament. Finland still awaited the US in the final, as Duke does for Wisconsin.
“Duke is a really good team,” Ryan said. “I think Finland was a good team because they got to the finals. So, yes, we know we've got 40 more, as I've said a thousand times. But we know we got some work to do. I think last night's game simply says, ‘Okay, it puts you in position now to go after the championship.’”
Maybe some fans need that reminder, but not this team. Everything that has been said indicates this team isn’t just OK with returning to the Final Four or even finding vengeance over Kentucky. It wants a championship.