Family values. Blue chip currency.
Four year players. Five new faces.
Big Ten degrees. Big time contracts.
It is a good thing this year’s Final Four will be played at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night; no venue could better accommodate the Texas-size gap between the Wisconsin and Kentucky basketball programs.
Both Wisconsin and Kentucky are Division I basketball teams loyal to all NCAA rules and regulations. Both teams are made up of student athletes enrolled at their respective universities. Both teams…well, that just may be where the similarities end.
The Badger program sells family values, earning a degree, and a deliberate style of play. Meanwhile, Kentucky only slightly differentiates itself from an NBA Developmental League Team. In fact, so many players recently have had a cup of coffee with the UK program, they could rename Rupp Arena- Heine Brother’s Arena.
Saturday night’s showdown at sundown will have Kentucky’s Sea of Blue pouring in 30,000 strong. Wisconsin’s Grateful Red road trip professionals always represent, and they will politely allow the red sweater club to tag along.
A variety of fuel fires the college basketball fan bandwagon: loyalty to state, allegiance to alma mater, thirst for winning and attachment to individual players. Kentucky vs. Wisconsin brings it all.
Junior Frank Kaminsky stumbled onto Bascom Hill as a raw, if not awkward, freshman in the fall of 2011. On the court, his game sputtered along like his Honda Spree cruising to practice on a cool November morning. For those watching closely, his shooting touch occasionally raised a hopeful eyebrow.
Kaminsky increased his production sophomore year: to 4.2 points per game. But at 6’11he served up small portions of “Ooh, this kid could be good! Maybe with one more year under Ryan.” Flash forward, and on a historic night last November, he exploded for 43 points going 16-18 from the floor. UW fans had cheered his baby steps in the Big Ten, and patiently awaited these industrious years. This was their Frank.
Julius Randle. Stories about his dominance in the Texas AAU circuit began by fifth grade. The stories never stopped. The most coveted power forward in the Class of 2013, from 6th grade forward. Just one of his 7th grade dunks generated over 45,000 views on youtube.
Kentucky fans have cyber stalked Randle for years. Their vision, a computer animated driving, rebounding, dunking machine in blue and white. In blue and white. For one year. Busting through the bracket in March.
Bronson Koenig played his way to Madison in 2010 and ’13 to win the Division III Wisconsin State Tournament. He toted smooth handles, no look passes and a soft, arching three point shot that hit at nearly a 50% clip. “Any chance this kid will stay at home? Bo better get this guy. But over UNC? Over Duke? Come on.”
Koenig did ink with the Badgers and when he went clutch on two of two three point attempts last Saturday vs. Arizona, the Coulee Region collective celebrated more than anyone. Former teachers, coaches, neighbors, classmates. They know him well, and always knew what he could be.
Wonder Twin powers –put on your UK jerseys- and, activate! If it wasn’t Julius Randle muscling through the Texas AAU league, it was the Harrison twins absolutely torching it. The number one ranked point guard. In the country. The number one ranked shooting guard. In the country. Badger fans, when was the last time your media guides were littered with such language? Landing this package would be the ultimate coup. Instant backcourt. Instant chemistry. Instant rebound from a poor draft.
Before the Harrison’s or Randle had signed anywhere, UK fans had one worry. The Harrison’s and Mr. Randle did not like to play in the same sandbox. Their rivalry was well known and created much speculation about their landing spots. “Oh, boy. Do you think Cal can possibly bring ‘em all together? Can you imagine? Both of these guys, with Randle? Would the committee even invite 63 other teams come March?“ They were, and are, that good.
March 2012. Wisconsin State Tournament. Fans had heard all about this kid, Dekker, from Sheboygan. Bo had signed him, and he was one of the top 20 players in the nation. The Kohl Center was alive and the state fixed its eyes on Dekker’s every crossover and dribble drive. Championship game. Dekker’s 38th, 39th, and 40th points come on a game winning fade away from the corner.
At that moment, Badger fans knew they’d be watching Sam Dekker hit the same shots from the same spots for the next four years. Was this a sign of the March Madness to come?
Dominique Hawkins similarly electrified UK fans while leading Madison Central to the Kentucky State Championship game in 2013. And he is the 17th Mr. Kentucky to join the program. He was the 44th ranked point guard in the country. Absurdly, as fans watched the state tournament last year, they had to ask, “Will he even see the floor here in Kentucky?”
Hawkins has worked his way into the rotation, but with his talent UK fans have to wonder, “Will he stay?” With Calipari’s next fantasy draft due to arrive this fall, minutes may be hard to come by.
As the National Anthem played for the 2013 Division 1 State Tournament, Zak Showalter stood on the Kohl Center floor. His father, and head coach, Steve Showalter, glanced over at the readied look on his son’s face. Together, they completed a 28-0 season and took home the gold ball.
Coach Steve balled for Bo Ryan’s UW-Platteville teams in the late 80’s. See, Bo’s been building bridges in Wisconsin since 1976. Even though Bo made his dad Steve wear short shorts, Zak still chose to walk on and play for Bo.
When Marcus Lee set the tone with two thunder dunks in the first eight minutes of last Saturday’s game against Michigan, the Sea of Blue was a rockin’. “Where has that been? I thought he would have two or three of those a game this year!” Another highlight searched hype machine coming true before their very eyes. And just in time.
No fault of Lee’s, really. One of the top twenty players in the county last year, up to that point he had logged only 126 minutes for the Wildcats this season. Trapped in a traffic jam of talent, he is one reason it is completely plausible Kentucky’s second five would give the Badgers all they could handle.
Badger fans visualize what freshmen Nigel Hayes might look like as a senior. They marvel at the how steady Traevon Jackson has become. They think back to the 2010 Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year, Josh Gasser, starting as a freshman, and they remember talking back then, about right now.
Kentucky fans wonder if Coach Cal can keep up this pace. “The best recruiting class ever” only buys him one year. They roll 16 Final Fours deep and hang 8 NCAA Championship banners. They’ve learned to swallow freshmen mistakes, but only with top-five talent as a chaser. No one enjoys one shining moment like Kentucky fans, even as the frenzied reloading takes place around them.
The Badgers put more players in caps and gowns last year alone than the Wildcats have had seniors put on a jersey over the last three seasons. It’s difficult to calculate a graduation rate when players never even reach senior status.
Coach Bo Ryan has been criticized for not bringing in elite talent. He brings in players to develop and who fit. He’s been criticized for reliance on a system with boundaries too narrow.
Coach John Calipari has been criticized for bringing in only elite talent. He successfully recruits the very best high school players in the country, for one shot at a championship. He’s been criticized for leaving the college out of college basketball.
Old school. New school. Four years in school. Nine months in school. Both programs arrive in Texas not only taking proverbial different paths, but using different maps entirely.
Whose map will lead to Monday night?
Is that really the destination?