Stealing the show
Laid-back Wisconsin has charmed the NCAA tournament
INDIANAPOLIS -- Live, from Indianapolis, it’s the Final Four Eve Show, starring that loose and fun-loving bunch ... the Wisconsin Badgers!
It’s 10 a.m. on Friday, only one day before the sobering task of facing 38-0 Kentucky, and Frank Kaminsky is on the press room dais to be awarded the Oscar Robertson Player of the Year Award, fielding questions from the media.
The press conference moderator asks to, 'please identify yourself and your affiliation.'
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Wait a second. That’s one of Kaminsky’s teammates.
"Sam Dekker, @samdek1."
Matter of fact, the whole team is here in support, and now peppering Kaminsky with playful questions.
That’s how it’s been this week. Wisconsin tomfoolery, except for the deadly-serious practices and film study. The other day, Bo Ryan was talking up his pinball prowess as a kid back in Pennsylvania, and when his childhood buddies began messaging him to demand rematches, he admitted, "It did exactly what I wanted it to do."
You’ve got to like these guys.
Did You Know No. 1: In the past eight NCAA tournaments, the Badgers lost to six opponents seeded at least four spots lower, including Cornell and Davidson. (They were chronic upset victims. But not lately.)
It’s 1:20 p.m., and the Wisconsin players are spread in different rooms doing individual interviews.
Josh Gasser is in Room 3, talking about the Badgers’ favorite video games.
"We used to play Pong a lot. That was our thing. FIFA has obviously stayed solid. But we’ve turned into a Super Smash Brothers team. We play hours before practice, hours after practice, on road trips. It’s gotten pretty serious."
Did You Know No. 2: With Kaminsky on the floor, the Badgers have outscored opponents by 583 points. With him on the bench, they have been outscored by 12 points.
Over in Room 2, Traevon Jackson is talking about fighting his way back from a foot fracture just in time for the tournament.
"The biggest thing is never give up. If you quit, you’re the only one who is stopping your dream."
Did You Know No. 3: Going back to February of 2011, Wisconsin is 117-3 when leading or tied with five minutes left, including 34-0 this year. (Kentucky might not get away with trailing like it did against Notre Dame.)
Down the hall in Room 5, Kaminsky is talking about Wisconsin not being the team with all the high school All-Americans.
"I think that’s our identity. We’re the guys that had to work hard to get where we want. We had to work hard to get to this stage. We take pride that we’re kind of the misfits that were not very wanted coming out of high school."
About the difference between this Final Four and the last one, which ended with the one-point loss against Kentucky.
"Last year I think we were just excited and happy to be here. This year I think we understand how much it’s going to take. I can just see it in the way people are approaching things."
Did You Know No. 4: The Badgers have made 121 more free throws than their opponents have shot. The next best in the nation is Duke at 45.
Dekker in Room 1 is chatting about the chance to spoil Kentucky’s perfect season.
"Historically, I guess it would be a story, but to us, not really. We’re not going into the game thinking this is a chance to beat the undefeated guys. We’re going in with the mindset of hey, this is chance to get the national title and reach our goal."
In Room 4, Hayes is being asked which jokes have made Bo Ryan laugh in practice.
"See, I’m sitting here right now and I’m already thinking of one I haven’t used yet. Here it goes. Why can you not hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom? Because the 'p' is silent. It’s ok, you guys can laugh. We’re all just having a good time here."
Did You Know No. 5: Wisconsin went 27 consecutive games with single digit turnovers. In a January game against Iowa, the Badgers committed just one. They have 29 total in four tournament games. Gasser has one in 145 minutes, Dekker two in 137.
It is 1:45 p.m. and the Badgers are back together on the same dais that Kaminsky used in the morning.
Ryan is answering the question about how he has endured for so many years.
"Medication. I mean meditation, excuse me."
Dekker gets asked about how the Badgers fill out a daily fitness form on their sleep and eating habits. "My last meal, probably a burger. I think it was a burger, and guac.
"I’m not too judicious with filling in my information."
Kaminsky also confesses. "Had an omelette this morning with some ham. salt and pepper. Some syrup on top. I get a lot of flack for putting syrup on top. But Nigel does it, too."
Gasser is talking about how his shooting has improved. "As [former Badger] Zach Bohannon would have said, it’s a random sequence of events. Can’t really control it. You work hard, get in the gym a lot, try to make shots, help your team out."
Did You Know No. 6: Ryan has won at least 19 games in each of his 14 seasons. Before he arrived, Wisconsin had just four 19-win seasons in 103 years of basketball.
The subject moves to preparation for Kentucky’s towers. Ryan mentions the dismissed idea of Wisconsin players using tennis racquets in practice. "You know what? With these guys, they might have started whacking each other with them."
Kaminsky and Dekker are speaking to what the 2014 loss to Kentucky means now.
"We’re not going to use last year’s game as what you guys like to call revenge or the rematch," Dekker said. "We want to play whoever we got to play and get a win and go on for another game.'"
Kaminsky said, "This is what seasons are remembered for. You remember the national championship ... I wanted that badly to be us. I thought we had an opportunity to do so. We’re back at that stage. We fought hard to be here. We are going to do whatever we can to make sure we are the last team standing."
Did You Know No. 7: Dekker once scored 12 points in the final 40 seconds, including a 3-point buzzer beater, to win his high school state championship game.
Last question goes to Hayes, who drew attention in the regional for throwing out words worthy of the National Spelling Bee, to challenge the poor soul transcribing the press conference.
"I don’t know why I show up to these things," he answers. "No one ever talks to me."
"Nigel, they’re afraid to ask you a question anymore," Ryan says.
"Sticking to tradition," Hayes said, "prestidigitation. And hello, Mr. Stenographer."
The Badgers stand and leave for practice. They are having the time of their lives, and they have charmed the NCAA tournament.
We’ll soon find out how much that helps against Kentucky.