INDIANAPOLIS – At the end, when the unstoppable team had officially been stopped, a towel flew high in the air over the Wisconsin bench. The players ran at anyone wearing red, leaping into arms or onto backs. They greeted the moment they’d waited for since last April with hugs and screams: It was Kentucky again in a Final Four semifinal, and this time Kentucky left crushed. The perfect season upended in a 71-64 win on Saturday by the buoyant Badgers, the loosest team in the country given yet another reason to smile.
In the locker room, they sang and danced. When Frank Kaminsky entered, the Badgers greeted their All-America forward with a ritual all of two weeks old: Whose birthday is it!?! Whose birthday is it!?! they shouted, with the freshly 22-year-old Kaminsky bouncing in the middle, hands in the air. This was a routine adopted after a dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles only last weekend, during which guard Bronson Koenig and forward Vitto Brown saw staffers cheer birthday diners this way. Following an Elite Eight win over Arizona, the Badgers invoked the chant in the locker room. It wasn’t actually anyone’s birthday that night. To know Wisconsin is to know that is far from the point.
The 72,238 fans assembled at Lucas Oil Stadium saw a victory for joy in basketball, for playing and living free and easy, without cynicism or bombast or an ego overload. Wisconsin confirmed you can be serious about a championship and hardly anything else. The Badgers are fun, a hardwood glee club, unburdened by a demand to be something other than who they are. They tease stenographers. They tell jokes in press conferences. And then they go and beat an unbeatable Goliath. If the weight of expectations fell upon Wisconsin, it would probably land on a whoopee cushion.
“The beauty of this team is we realize we can be loose and have fun, but at the same time, we realize there are times we need to put the game face on and get ready to go,” forward Duje Dukan said. “If you take things way too seriously a lot, you can’t really have fun and enjoy it. We’ve done a great job this year of enjoying the ride that we’re on.”
Naturally, the ride included a collision course with Kentucky, which used a last-seconds Aaron Harrison dagger to eliminate Wisconsin in a national semifinal last April. It was the eviscerating moment, the Badgers said, that made them what they were this year. It was also a moment they were determined to avoid repeating. And they were ideally equipped to do so despite the 38 wins and zero losses that the Wildcats brought into Saturday night.
Wisconsin had the size and the right brew of offensive skill and patience to neutralize Kentucky’s typical advantages of a monstrous frontline and waves of athletic players coming off the bench. As Notre Dame did in nearly upsetting Kentucky in the Elite Eight, the Badgers spread the floor, stationing players around the three-point arc, only occasionally posting up while drawing the Wildcats’ big men away from the rim. The result was 47.9% shooting overall, seven three-pointers and 1.246 points per possession against a team that finished the season allowing just 0.711 points per trip. Combined with diligence on the boards—Wisconsin doubled up Kentucky on the offensive glass, 12 to six—it was the perfect antidote to perfection.
“Out of anybody in the country,” Koenig said, “I thought we matched up best with them.”
Confidence, of course, is fine. Translating it into execution against the best team the Badgers had played all year is another.
To handle that pressure, Wisconsin did what it almost always does: laughed it off.
On Tuesday, before the Badgers left for the Final Four, there was Kaminsky at a Kohl Center media gathering, whacking a bottle of sports drink off a table in mock frustration when teammates wouldn’t give him credit for being a better video game soccer player. Three days later, Kaminsky received the Oscar Robertson trophy from the USBWA as national player of the year. His teammates joined him for the Friday ceremony, then took seats in front of the dais. And forward Sam Dekker leaned over to his roommate, backup guard Zak Showalter, with an idea.
I’m going to act like a stereotypical media member and ask Frank how it feels, Dekker said.
Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes overheard the plan, and he couldn’t resist. With the floor opened for questions, Hayes’ hand shot in the air. He introduced himself as “Nigel Hayes, BadgerBeat.com” and asked Kaminsky what it meant to win the award. Dekker was next. He gave his Twitter handle as his media outlet and asked Kaminsky who his favorite teammate was. Third in line was beat writer Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal. When the microphone reached him, the Badgers booed.
“If you just go through the same stuff—for the last five weeks, if we didn’t have any change in this—it just gets too boring,” Showalter said. “It’s weird to say, because it’s the Final Four. But staying in the hotel for five weeks, basically, if you’re not loose with your guys and having fun, you get stressed out. When we get into the game, we’re able to flip the switch.”
This team has fast become a comedy troupe with taped ankles and good jump shots. Hayes famously has tried to trip up the NCAA’s stenographers by dropping multisyllabic vocabulary during press conferences—prestidigitation was Friday’s word of the day—and he now has begun telling jokes as a part of pre-practice customs. In a room full of cameras and recorders, the day before arguably the most momentous game in program history, Hayes shared a particularly tricky one he’d ginned up.
“Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl use the bathroom?” he asked the crowd.
Hayes paused, then leaned forward.
“The ‘P’ is silent.”
They are so refreshingly unprogrammed, so delightfully at ease, that Saturday felt like a statement beyond anything that transpired on the court. Surely, Kentucky has personality. Ask a direct question, and you will get Willie Cauley-Stein to discuss his favorite Super Smash Bros. character, as he did Thursday. (It’s Kirby.) But generally, out of paranoia or necessity or a combination of both, the program throws up wall after wall, making it nearly impossible to conceive of a Wildcat dropping one-liners in a Final Four news conference. Coach John Calipari can scold the ubiquitous straw men always undermining his program and scream, “You can’t steal my joy!” as he did after the regular season finale against Florida, but it’s often difficult to believe there’s any there for the taking.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has good humor to spare. “That’s the key—you gotta have fun,” Badgers guard Traevon Jackson said. “You can’t be uptight. If we were out there, man, playing in front of 70,000 people and letting that affect us, we would have lost. But we came in and we were ourselves.”
Even after Dekker fueled the win by making a driving layup and a step-back three-pointer on one end and drawing an offensive foul at the other, Showalter joked that it might have been the first charge his friend and roommate had ever taken. Such are the Badgers. No one and no moment are too big to be cut down to size.
And now it’s Duke, standing in the way of a title. The opportunity is nothing to snicker at, but do not expect Wisconsin to get bent out of shape over it.
“We know that whatever is going on in the game, we're not going to change,” Dekker said. “You guys have seen that all year. Whether we're down six or up 20, we're going to be us and we're going to play our game. I think that's the way you need to go about things in life, especially on the basketball court. We got down today a little bit, but we didn't change what we did, we didn't freak out. We knew if we played our game, we'd get back into it, come back, crawl back. We're not surprised we were in this situation. This is something we've been talking about since day one. Look where we are now.”
As Saturday turned into Sunday, Kaminsky, Dekker and Hayes rode a cart from their news conference to the locker room. Kaminsky yelled over his shoulder at a wide-eyed and grinning Hayes, trash talking and challenging him to a video game battle. They hopped off, and when Hayes spotted assistant coach Greg Gard giving a television interview, he shouted something unintelligible in an effort to throw off the Badgers aide. And then the trio disappeared inside, Wisconsin on to the biggest moment of all.
The national championship game is Monday. Send in the clowns.