MADISON - As thoroughly detailed a player as anyone on the Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team, senior guard Josh Gasser is heavily scouting the University of Kentucky by breaking down a handful of games the Wildcats have played and won this year.
He just won’t watch that game from last season, a game that will forever be ingrained in his mind.
“It’s one of those games and moments you just don’t want to think about,” he said, “but unfortunately it sometimes creeps into your head a little bit.”
The game Gasser and his teammates have spent a year trying to suppress is bubbling back to the forefront this week, as its one of the many storylines between Wisconsin (35-3) and Kentucky (38-0) before they meet for the second straight season in the national semifinals, this time at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Saturday at approximately 7:49 p.m. CT.
In that game, which was played a year ago this Sunday in Arlington, Texas, Wisconsin led 73-71 with 16 seconds left when Kentucky freshman Andrew Harrison hit his only 3-pointer of the game – a deep contested shot over Gasser – with 5.7 seconds left. The shot was gut-wrenching and became heart-wrenching after Traevon Jackson’s jumper didn’t bank off the glass and in as time expired.
Returning eight of the nine players who played against the Wildcats, the Badgers knew they’d have an opportunity to return to the Final Four and have a chance to redemption. It’s part of the reason why Gasser and fellow senior Frank Kaminsky mentally replayed the game in the weeks that followed and used it as motivation during their 6 a.m. offseason lifts.
Junior Sam Dekker tried to take it a step forward by using his chair from his Final Four locker as a daily reminder of the work it took to get to that point, until UW renovated and his chair was misplaced.
“If someone has my Final Four chair, send it to me,” said Dekker.
But however the players chose to remember the loss to Kentucky, the Badgers recognized that it was more than two plays in the final 10 seconds that cost them a chance to play for their first national title since 1941.
Going against Kentucky’s tall, talented, athletic frontcourt, the Wildcats outscored the Badgers 46-24 in points in the paint, 23-10 off second-chance points and 10-2 off turnovers, dominating the post through long stretches of the game and serving as a wake-up call to Wisconsin players.
“That loss definitely motivated us, not only as a team, but individually with our work ethic,” said sophomore Nigel Hayes. “I know I’ve worked hard only to make sure that I was better, so if I’m ever in the situation again, and here we are in the exact same situation as last year, I’d be able to perform better and contribute.”
Hayes was one of the many players who took things personal after the game. The Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year as a true freshman, Hayes was a nonfactor with his performance, playing only seven minutes and finishing with two points off the bench.
“I didn’t contribute to help the team in the way that I should have,” said Hayes. “All I had to do was be average for us to win, and I was below average statistically. A year of being better, a year of more ups and downs and more situations in the game of basketball and, especially, the situations of make the Final Four in the games that we play in. Hopefully that will show.”
Kaminsky wasn’t much better. Following his 28-point, 11-rebound performance against Arizona in the Elite Eight, serving as his national coming out party, Kentucky threw double teams at him every time he touched the ball, limiting him to eight points and five rebounds.
While Kentucky’s two leading scorers in the game – Julius Randle and James Young – are now in the professional ranks, the Wildcats didn’t have the services of Willie Cauley-Stein and have added outstanding freshman Karl-Anthony Towns to the mix to make them a deeper team than they were a year ago and still not skipped a beat.
“They didn’t play as many people last year as they do this year, so we’ll see how it’s different,” said Kaminsky. “I’ll just do whatever I have to do. If it’s double teams, if it’s one-on-ones, whoever is guarding me, I’ll just be ready for whatever.”
Kentucky isn’t the only thing the Badgers will be prepared for this year, as they found out last year that being one of the final four teams standing in the NCAA tournament comes with tons of media attention. After going through a practice Wednesday, the team will be the features guests in a sendoff ceremony in the arena and then will be a part of a mini-parade throughout the city on their way to the airport.
Once in Indianapolis, the team has two days of media interviews before they even get a chance to step on the court, something Dekker said can be more exhausting that going through a practice but things UW is prepared for.
“We just like playing basketball,” said Dekker. “We don’t get too hyped up. It’s just another game. It’s just in a bigger gym. Once you get on the court it’s the same basketball. We’ve just got to do our thing. We’ve prepared so much for this. Starting in June, we knew what we wanted to do, we’ve put in the work and now it shouldn’t be anything different. We don’t have to change anything. We’ve just got to be ourselves.”
After forgetting about the memory for the better part of six months, the lasting images of Kentucky and Wisconsin are starting to trickle back into the minds of the players. That’s perfectly fine with them. After literally being one possession away from playing for a national championship, Wisconsin has adopted the mentality of valuing every single possession on each end on the floor.
The reason is simple: they never know when one possession could be the difference from a championship or tremendous disappointment.
“It was a heartbreaking loss, but I think it’s made this team this year what it is,” said Kaminsky. “Now is the time you can remember a moment like that, and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”