Sunday, April 5, 2015

One more human hurdle for the Badgers to overcome

Minutes after the Wisconsin Badgers stunned the basketball world by defeating the previously unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats Saturday evening, 71-64, the moaning and groaning about “history” being averted had already begun in the sports media. While a few brave outliers thought this game testified to the value of quality over quantity, and even unhesitatingly predicted that the Badgers would prevail over Duke for the same reasons they did over Kentucky, the great majority of opinion seemed to be that Wisconsin had shot its wad and has nothing left for Duke in the championship game on Monday. Who would be after downing a team that was considered capable of beating a lesser NBA squad like the New York Knicks?

It seems that the Wisconsin basketball program under Coach Bo Ryan just refuses to play by the accepted “rules.” It’s players supposedly are not “athletic,” or a bunch of oddballs for whom winning in  education is as important as winning on the court. They don’t “fit in” with the street-level play of most teams, which is what the NBA accepts as the “standard” by default. I think it is all political, because the Wisconsin-Kentucky rematch from last year’s heartbreaker (for Badger fans) was a referendum between two entirely different program philosophies, coaching and players. Few of the media “experts” wanted to see Wisconsin win, not because they couldn’t—oddly, most “experts” had been saying all year that the Badgers were the team best equipped to beat Kentucky—but because of the myths it might destroy.

Despite Wisconsin’s tremendous season—winning the Big 10 conference title and tournament, finishing the third-ranked team in the nation—unimpressive wins over Coastal Carolina and the Pac-12’s second-best team (Oregon) seemed to suggest to the doubters that the Badgers were not that good after all, and seemed headed for a fall against a good team from the powerful ACC in the Sweet Sixteen. North Carolina led Wisconsin by as many as seven points in the second half, but Wisconsin proved that it was a finisher, just as it did against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament finals, when they outscored the Spartans 31-10 after falling behind by 10 with five minutes left in regulation. Up by only one point with a minute to play, Wisconsin outscored the Tar Heels 8-2, scoring all their points from perfect free throw shooting to win by seven.

Yet even before that game the “experts” had their next opponent, Arizona, in their Final Four bracket. Again, the explanation for this seemed to be ignorance of the quality of the Wisconsin brand of basketball. They were accused to being “slow” and not matching-up well with Arizona’s guards, but in general the question marks seemed to make no sense. Some guy named Mitchel Lawrence in Forbes Magazine quoted one NBA “expert” about Arizona:

“’They’re the one team that could take out Kentucky,’ one veteran NBA scout who watched the ‘Cats win the Pac-12 tournament told me. ‘They should have gotten the No. 1 seed in the West, not Wisconsin. They have the kind of team that can beat Kentucky.’’’

What was he smoking? Like North Carolina, Arizona—who for the second consecutive year was playing essentially a home game in the Elite 8—led at halftime, but with the Badgers raining down three-point baskets on their parade, the game was over five minutes into the second half.

And again against Kentucky, despite the fact that Wisconsin supposedly was best equipped (or the second-best equipped) to beat the Wildcats, few took them seriously. But Kentucky played either cupcakes in the SEC all season, or teams like Texas who were ranked early in the season but then fell off the map. When Kentucky was finally “tested” against a top-ten opponent in Notre Dame, it was only the exhaustion of their smaller opponent that prevented defeat. 

But the Badgers are a bigger, more veteran team than the Irish, and they were a team that didn’t wilt at the end. It wasn’t Nigel Hayes’ non-basket that tied the game after Kentucky surged from an eight-point second half deficit to a 4-point lead late in the game that “cost” them  the game (Wisconsin had a three-point shot negated after a bizarre off-the-ball foul call, and Trey Lyle’s flagrant foul to the face of Josh Gasser went uncalled); the Wildcats lost because unlike against Notre Dame when they went 9 of 9 shooting in final minutes of the game, they were equally ice-cold against Wisconsin, hitting only one of their last eight shots.

The team that deserved to win won, and this was proved off the court as well. While Kentucky “fans” in Lexington were rioting in the streets, a few Kentucky players couldn’t keep the “street” out of their post-game thoughts; during the press conference afterwards, Andrew Harrison blurted out “F—k that n---a” in response to a question about Wisconsin’s top player, Frank Kaminsky. Harrison quickly attempted to make “amends,” tweeting out that “First i want to apologize for my poor choice of words used in jest towards a player I respect and know.” But that cow had already escaped from the barn; both the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, had sulked off the court following the game, refusing to go through the handshake line to show their respect for their opponents.

ESPN’s Steven A. Smith (one of those who was certain that Kentucky was going to win the game) offered a “defense” for the slur, claiming that it doesn’t have the same connotation as a white person would have using it. That may be true, except that when used in “context” and in the tone it was used, it was certainly meant to be disparaging. That this is so is again shown by the fact that both the Harrisons showed poor sportsmanship by avoiding the postgame handshakes and skulking off to the locker room. 

Those who before the weekend games were already “analyzing” a Kentucky-Duke championship game were of course deriding the Badgers chances of beating Duke. Wisconsin can’t beat Duke because the Blue Devils can play defense (wasn’t playing defense Kentucky’s strength?) and has more offensive weapons (isn’t Wisconsin number one in the country in offensive efficiency?). Isn’t Wisconsin averaging 78.6 points per game in the tournament? In fact, Duke is averaging less points-per-game in the tournament than in the regular season, while Wisconsin is averaging nearly seven points-per-game more than in the regular season. Oh, but Duke has 8 McDonald’s all-Americans, to Wisconsin’s none. But didn’t Kentucky have nine such players on their roster?

And didn't Wisconsin have by far the toughest road to the finals, having to play both the No. 1 and 2 teams from the Pac-12, as well ACC tournament finalist North Carolina, and finally the supposed NBA-caliber Kentucky? Who did Duke have to play to get to the finals? Gonzaga? It seemed that the NCAA bracket committee had purposely set up an easy road for Duke to play Kentucky, and people are upset because Wisconsin mucked it all up.

Duke’s only real advantage is perceived favoritism from officials. The Blue Devils shot 37 free throws against the Spartans in their Final Four game, and their margin of free throws was curiously coincidental with their final margin of victory. But the Badgers having lost to Duke earlier in the season with star Sam Dekker playing with an injured foot—and most “experts” betting against them—I wouldn’t be surprised by anything.

Despite a 21-point, 12-rebound performance by Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin fell to Duke 68-63 in the championship game. At least the Badgers denied Duke pride of place as being the team that beat Kentucky in an "epic" showdown.

No comments:

Post a Comment