A lot of people can say in retrospect that earlier this year, they saw this Badgers team in the Sweet 16, but I don't know if many believed it – especially after starting 1-3 in Big Ten play. No matter what you predicted, you have to see that at this point, the Badgers are clicking and hot at the right time. They've battled there way through to coveted space in the most special tournament in the world of sports.
Getting to be a part of the NCAA Tournament was definitely one of the coolest experiences of my life. Every single thing about it is cool. Right when the weather is starting to get nice in Madison (pending an annual large snowstorm in March or April), you get a chance to watch the selection show and see the fate of your legacy as a college basketball player being chosen for you, along with a nationally televised audience. You get this rejuvenated feeling that no matter what happened earlier this season, if you win six games in a row, you're a national champion.
Everything from national media attention, autograph seekers at the hotels, shoot-arounds open to the public, police escorts everywhere you go, pep rallies in the hotel as you depart for games, people like Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller watching you firsthand and down to "NCAA" patches on your uniforms – it all reminds you that you're at the center of the basketball universe. It's definitely a magical time of year and I was extremely fortunate to be apart of five NCAA tournament appearances and two Sweet 16's.
March is always an emotional time of the year, as well. Only one team in the tournament ends the season with a win, and there's the realization that any game could be your last. For underclassmen, you realize that if you lose, you have to say goodbye to your seniors. For seniors, you realize if you lose, you say goodbye to the incredible experience you've been fortunate to be apart of the last few years. These thoughts only cross your mind slightly because your coaches do a good job of keeping the focus on the task at hand to make sure you continue those experiences. Coach Ryan always talks about how all you're guaranteed is another 40 minutes of basketball, and you're playing for the right to play 40 more.
There's no doubt this Badgers season has been up and down. They've battled inconsistent shooting and some tough late game breaks. But they've shown throughout the year to have an incredible resilience and gritty attitude about them.
They followed about a dismal 69-41 loss at Michigan with an impressive 67-62 win at Purdue. The defense has been phenomenal all year and the offense is clicking at the right time. Ryan Evans is playing at an all-tournament caliber. Rob Wilson has been a stellar scoring punch. Mike Bruesewitz has come on very strong the last few games. Ben Brust provided the winning spark in the clutch against Vanderbilt. Josh Gasser is the most underrated guard in the Big Ten. Jared Berggren has been phenomenal on both ends. Jordan Taylor is still the best point guard in America. I may be a little on the biased side, and call me crazy, but this team is as poised as anyone to knock off Syracuse. This team is on the kind of roll where confidence is spreading. They are playing with the kind of fire that it's going to take an impressive display by an opponent to beat them.
Syracuse is without its best player Fab Mel and narrowly escaped against a No.16 seed in the second round. If you're a Badgers fan, you see blood in the water. Now there's no doubt this won't be easy. Syracuse is extremely long and athletic, with strong guards in Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche and NBA-type scoring punch on the wings with James Southerland, Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters. They play a 2-3 zone that UW has not seen a lot of. The Badgers are underdogs, but that's the attitude this team has played their best ball with and they have the experience to not care who jumps ball against them – remember how this team took UNC to the wire in Chapel Hill and won at Ohio State late?
The biggest keys to this game are the Badgers outside shooting against the ‘Cuse zone and if the Badgers can score late in the shot clock. You know they'll defend. All I know is if Jordan Taylor is on the roster and Bo Ryan is the basketball coach, the Badgers will not go down without a fight.
For the players, you know that these tournament games are the ones that define your legacy. You want to make sure you prepare and do everything you can so that when it's all said and done, you have the feeling you left it all out on the floor. Most of all you just want to continue the awesome experiences with your teammates. It's going to bug me the rest of my life I never made it to the Final Four. I think these guys have a great shot, and knowing what a great group of guys this team is and how hard they work, I'll be rooting my tail off that these guys get to experience that.
You hear the emotion in Coach Ryan's voice in his locker room speech after the win over Vanderbilt and see the Badgers players singing "Varsity" on the court after the game, and you see what those close to the program have known for years: that this is not a stepping-stone program or a place you go to get individual accolades – the Wisconsin Badger basketball program bleeds Badger red. The program does things the right way in the classroom, community and plays the game the right way (despite what anonymous Big Ten coaches say, Seth Davis). Whether this team makes it to the Final Four (and beyond) or not, you have to tip your hat to the successes of the season, and the program, and enjoy the ride.