MADISON - As the Final Four banner slowly rose to its new home in the Kohl Center rafters, current and former members stood on the court, looked up and remembered the journey that captivated the state.
Sam Dekker watched with his Final Four ring on his finger, too, but his mindset was a touch different.
“After that first video and little tribute, which was cool, I said to Josh (Gasser) thank goodness we’ve got this preseason stuff out of the way,” said the junior. “The hype is good. People talking about us was cool, is fun, but at some point you’ve got to turn the page from last year.”
Finally being able to put all the preseason awards, magazine covers and national attention behind them, No.3 Wisconsin kicked off its highly anticipated season with a dominating 62-31 victory over Northern Kentucky.
The Norse returned 12 players that averaged over 10 minutes per game last season, including 12 of the team’s top 13 scorers. All well and good, but the Badgers – unanimous favorites to win the Big Ten – returned seven of their top eight scorers, including four starters with something to prove.
Too big, too strong and too experienced, Wisconsin (1-0) shot 48.9 percent and were able to hold the Norse to 26.4 percent shooting (14-for-53).
Facing a team whose tallest players were 6-7, the 7-0 Frank Kaminksy and 6-8 Nigel Hayes had a field day. The senior All-American scored seven of his game-high 16 points consecutively in the first half and registered his third career double-double by adding 11 rebounds.
Hayes – making his first career start - set a new career high in rebounds in the game’s first 17 minutes, finishing with 10 rebounds to go along with his six points and two blocks.
“Nigel was active,” said Wisconsin Coach Ryan. “I thought defensively he did some good things.”
Dekker added 15 points for the Badgers, who won their home opener for the 17th-straight season.
Prior to tip off, members of the 2013-14 squad formally received their Final Four rings with the NCAA West Region trophy at center court. Ben Brust, a senior off last year’s squad now playing overseas, introduced a video montage recapping last season before the 2014 Final Four banner was lifted into the rafters. It now hangs next to banners honoring the 1941 and 2000 Final Four teams and the 1941 national championship team.
Whether it was the ceremony or the start of a new season, Wisconsin needed a few minutes to shake the cobwebs. They were scoreless on their first three trips and let the Norse score on their first possession.
The upset bid didn’t last long. Wisconsin went on an 18-4 run from that point and kept pouring it on with solid interior defense, attacking the glass and stellar ball movement, all strong traits of Ryan’s clubs.
Wisconsin finished the game with a 42-28 edge on the glass and had 13 assists on 23 baskets, including eight of 11 in the first half.
“Returning so many people from last year’s team, we have an understanding of how to play with each other already and building off last year,” said Kaminsky, who had a game-high four assists. “Everyone knows everyone’s strengths. We just try to play to that.”
Led by Daniel Camps’ eight points off the bench, the Norse (0-1) crept back into the game at 21-15, but didn’t score the final five minutes of the first half or the first 15:30 the second. That resulted in a 24-0 run for the Badgers that put the game permanently out of reach.
The 31 points tied two November games from 2011-12 for the lowest output by an opponent in the Ryan era.
“The hardest thing for us is to simulate anything they have, and we’re pretty tiny,” said Northern Kentucky coach Dave Bezold, who was complimentary of Ryan for the opportunity to play in the sold-out environment. “In practice, it’s very difficult to simulate their size and strength … They (Wisconsin) are a tremendous team.”
It wasn’t perfect by any means. Wisconsin misfired often from 3-point range (4-17), committed nine turnovers and lacked flow at times. But for the first time out of the gates, it was a more than acceptable starting point.
”I’m proud of our defense, holding them to 31 points,” said Kaminsky. “It’s just good to get everyone in the game and start the season on the right foot.”