You’ve seen it proudly displayed by players before games and shared by the team’s official Twitter account, a three-word phrase that has embodied what the University of Wisconsin’s 2014-15 season has been all about.
“Make ‘Em Believe.”
“It fits because we use is in many different ways as a team,” said senior guard Josh Gasser, speaking on the topic while wearing the red adidas t-shirt with the motto printed in bold white letters. “Just stupid things that keep us loose, keep us focused. We go in the outside world and everyone talks basketball with us. We’re regular kids; we like to have some fun; we like to joke around with each other. It’s our thing – the 16 guys on this team.”
The phrase debuted prior to the start of the season and seemed a bit out of place. After all, Wisconsin already had a lot of believers coming into this season. The Badgers won 30 games a season ago, made the Final Four for the first time in 14 years and returned eight of the nine players who played against Kentucky in the national semifinals.
They were also picked to unanimously win the Big Ten regular season championship and return to the Final Four.
But with expectations comes pressure – and in Wisconsin’s case, tremendous outside pressure and high expectations – to live up to the hype, which for the Badgers was a return trip to the Final Four and even compete for the school’s first national championship since 1941.
Make ‘em believe wasn’t so much about embracing the hype, but focusing on the next 40 minutes of basketball.
“Make ‘em believe is the way we’ve been playing all year,” said senior Duje Dukan. “Teams have been talking about us and the media has been talking about us, but we have our own beliefs and our goals that we want to take care of this year. We’ve taken care of two and now we’re focused on taking care of the last one.”
That last one – a national championship – begins tonight, as Wisconsin (31-3) – the West Region’s No.1 seed – begins its march to Indianapolis and the Final Four with its NCAA tournament second round game against 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina at approximately 8:20 p.m. in Omaha, Neb.
While a handful of players weren’t sure how the phrase originated, sophomores Vitto Brown and Bronson Koenig are apparently the ones to be credited. According to a story by Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal, it began when Brown and senior Frank Kaminsky served as instructors at a youth camp in Kaminsky’s hometown of Lisle, Illinois, over the summer.
In helping the campers go through drills, scrimmages and playing shooting games, Brown beat Kaminsky in a 3-point shooting contest called “Knockout” or “Lightning.” Koenig, who was also at the camp, apparently shouted before the final round began, “Make ‘em believe, Vitto.”
That phrase stuck with Brown, who began using it in other games and activities with his teammates. It especially caught fire during preseason ping pong matches, the competitive game of choice in the Wisconsin locker room.
“That’s just rolled over into this season and it really fits what we’re trying to do,” said sophomore Zak Showalter. “It’s just staying true to who we are and everything starts to mesh even better toward the end of the season. We’ve played 34 games together. When you get that experience with guys and then off the court we’re communicating with stuff, just being ready to play is really helping us.”
It fit so well that the players fought all nonconference season to get the phrase on to their long-sleeved t-shirts for pregame warmups, something they finally debuted before the start of the Big Ten season.
“Even the fans have taken off with it,” said Gasser. “It’s a good thing, but it’s our thing, us 16 guys.”
It’s a thing that has helped Wisconsin stay true to its beliefs that no challenge is too big to overcome. After rolling through conference play, winning 12 games by double digits, Wisconsin trailed in all three conference tournament games, including by 11 in the finals with 7:30 remaining. In each instance, UW never lost its composure.
“Every time you go out on the court is another chance to prove how good you are and how good we’re capable of being,” said Dukan.
Senior Frank Kaminsky said Wisconsin’s team is full of goofballs, that every single person brings something quirky or abnormal to the table. Gasser believes its part of the fabric - having off-the-court chemistry is second to none – as to why Wisconsin has been so consistent through five months of games.
If they stay consistent for three more weekends, the Badgers will have made believers out of everybody.
“Once we get into the locker room, even at halftime when we’re down five, we’re still loose, trying to smile and do little things like that to keep you positive,” said Gasser. “It’s such a fun group to be around. Different personalities, different age groups, but everyone fits so well together. Everyone understands that all the hard work that needs to go into it, but at the same time it’s all about fun, too.”