INDIANAPOLIS -- On Saturday night, as Wisconsin made its way to the court through the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, they were stopped. The Badgers crossed paths with the Spartans, defeated by Duke just moments prior. One team trudging away from defeat, the other hoping it was marching toward victory. The teams didn’t ignore each other or offer a few grave nods. No, despite their anguish, the Spartans halted their long walk back to the locker room.
One by one, nearly every Michigan State coach and player approached the Badgers -- the bitter conference rivals who beat the Spartans in overtime for a Big Ten championship only three weeks before -- and wished them good luck. “Take care of business,” they said, “for our conference.”
“We were in that situation last year coming off the court and we know what those emotions feel like losing a game like this,” Wisconsin guard and native Zak Showalter. “For [The Spartans] to have that maturity as people to see the bigger picture was awesome.”
The Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship in men’s basketball since Michigan State earned the crown in 2000. Wisconsin hasn’t won the title in 74 years. To break those streaks -- to garner more respect for their team and their besieged conference -- the Badgers, fittingly, were tasked with conquering a pair of programs that are perpetually showered with respect and accolades.
The Badgers are halfway through that formidable task, dispatching undefeated, NBA prospect-laden Kentucky on Saturday. Now Duke, with its agile mountain of a center and transcendent coach, is the final obstacle that Wisconsin must hurdle on behalf of the oft-overlooked states and schools in the middle of the country.
And unlike those two teams, boasting rosters stocked with stars recruited from every corner of the country, the Badgers will do it with home-grown talent: Seven players hail from Wisconsin and eight more came to Madison from Illinois, Ohio or Minnesota. These were players who knew each other in AAU, who competed against each other in state playoff games and who stayed close to home in hopes of doing their region proud on the national stage. This is a team whose camaraderie is palpable in every press conference and every game, thanks in large part to their shared roots.
“I think it speaks volumes that everyone says Wisconsin people, Midwest people, are nice,” freshman forward Aaron Moesh said. “We get along very well together. It’s just easy.”
They come from towns with names like Orono, Oconomowoc, La Crosse, Lisle, Minnetonka, some of them home to well below 20,000 people -- towns that the media hubs on America’s coasts often pay little attention. But those towns helped shape this Badgers team, which is now only one game away from national championship.
Think about those enclaves when you watch Wisconsin’s stars -- Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, Josh Gasser, Bronson Koenig -- on the podium in front of the nation’s assembled sports media. Watch them, only 16 hours removed from the intensity of beating Kentucky, trying to stifle giggles like children in the back of the class when their teacher, Bo Ryan, dutifully gives a lecture. See Hayes pull the jersey over his mouth to keep his words to Dekker private, see Dekker laugh and lean behind Gasser whisper something to Kaminsky, see Kaminsky shake his head, smiling.
Gasser said he will remember the bus rides and the time spent killing time in hotels with his teammates more than the nationally-televised games or knocking off an undefeated team in front of 72,238 people.
“Having those Midwest guys who come from Midwest backgrounds, but still are different, it gels well,” Gasser said. “We embrace everyone.”
And their conference and region have embraced them right back. Ask them what they will play for on Monday night. Beyond their schools, there's the state of Wisconsin. They play for those small towns with the odd names. They play for the conference that evoked headlines earlier this year like “Big Ten keeps losing terrible games,” the conference that finished the season with only three ranked teams and was a frequent target of social media vitriol. When Michigan State knocked off Louisville last week, joining Wisconsin in the Final Four, Dekker tweeted: “The Big Ten had a down year right?” Minutes later, Kaminsky followed suit: “Remember when everyone said the Big Ten wasn’t good this year? Yea, me too.”
“They do know they represent more than just themselves,” Ryan said.
The Badgers represent a cold, friendly part of the country, one that many people only know as the patchwork quilt of land 35,000 feet below them. They represent the sea of fans in red who flooded their team hotel lobby well after midnight after the Badgers sent Kentucky home.
So, after a solemn moment deep inside a stadium, Michigan State took time during their season's most painful moment to wish the Badgers luck and remind them what were playing for:
They were playing for a conference. They were playing for an entire region. They were playing for their homes.