By Chris Emma-
ROSEMONT, Ill. (CBS) — The accolades and honors followed the Wisconsin basketball team through its magical 2013-’14 season. A Final Four run for the Badgers brought plenty to celebrate.
For these Badgers, a group largely made of the same core, last season’s success offered them something to look toward in a new season.
“Seeing that we can do it, and all the things we achieved last year, we can build on that this year,” said Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky, who was tabbed the Big Ten’s preseason Player of the Year.
Expectations are high for the Badgers, the preseason favorite in the otherwise open Big Ten.
With Kamisnky leading the way, plus a strong supporting cast of Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser and more, Wisconsin appears poised to repeat its success from last season. But the key — at least in the early season — will be staying focused. Coach Bo Ryan was asked how that is accomplished.
“Well, it really doesn’t affect when we’re doing our transition defensive drills, I don’t think my guys are thinking about that,” he said. “Our guys live in the moment, or at least we’re trying to — it appears that way.”
Now, the goal for Wisconsin is to be better than before. After all, it fell short of a championship, losing to Kentucky in the national semifinals last spring.
Dealing with the lofty expectations is just part of the job for Ryan, now in his fourth decade in the coaching industry. While this is his first season coming off a Final Four run, he’s not changing one bit.
“That’s our job,” Ryan said. “We’re mentors. We’re trying to get them better, not just as individuals but as teammates. I’ve always approached every season the same way, this being my 43rd in this profession. You can’t possibly think that I woke up this fall thinking, ‘Oh, wow, I’m going to do something different this year.'”
Wisconsin been touted as one of the top teams in the country, tabbed fourth in the coaches poll. The fans, media and coaches alike see the Badgers as a threat to reach the Final Four once again.
This all comes with the territory of a deep run in the big dance. The Badgers embrace the challenge of meeting — then exceeding — that high bar they set.
“We have a lot of expectations of ourselves, so that’s how we’re going to approach the season,” Kaminsky said. “We want to achieve our own goals, beyond what other people want to think about us or what we’re going to do. It’s nice to see people are saying we’re as good as we are, and we’re going to go out and prove it.”
Pitino prepared in Year 2
Approaching the podium Thursday in front of the assembled media, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino offered a greeting then immediately jumped to the obvious.
“It certainly feels better being in Year 2 sitting here than Year 1,” Pitino said.
“Just talking about it, just knowing who we have, what we’ve got coming in as well as what we had last year, so certainly very excited about it. Excited to get rolling.”
The differences between between the first two years are great, especially for the 32-year-old Pitino, who didn’t get that benefit in his last coaching stop, leaving Florida International after just a season to take the job at Minnesota in 2013.
Pitino had to solve a puzzle with FIU, as he had only three players in the April month he assumed the job because of so many defections. At Minnesota, things were different. He had a team ready to embrace its new leader.
“Normally, in Year 1, when a guy gets fired, normally it’s a train wreck,” Pitino said. “Ours was not a train wreck.
“I was fortunate to inherit a lot of great kids. That’s a testament to (former Minnesota coach) Tubby Smith.”
There were no internal battles for Pitino to fight within the Gophers that he took over. Minnesota’s roster held high character throughout 2013-’14, something he noted at the beginning and still believes now.
The Golden Gophers love the fighter’s mentality Pitino brings to the game and give everything for him.
“We love playing for our coach,” Minnesota forward Maurice Walker said. “We want to win for him. He has a great relationship with his players, easy guy to talk to. He knows when to keep it serious and when to clown around.”
Now, the questions surrounding these Gophers involve how they can improve off an NIT title in Pitino’s first year, which ended with a 24-13 mark. That’s the head coach’s mentality — nothing more than that.
“I’ve got a long way to go as a coach,” he said. “I don’t look ahead, and I don’t look behind. I just worry about today.”
Parity rich in the Big Ten
More than 18 months later, it’s still on the Michigan Wolverines’ minds. A team that would play in the national championship in 2012-’13 lost to a Penn State squad that won one Big Ten game.
This was February of 2013, now a distant memory from Big Ten media day. But the Wolverines’ stunning loss was referenced by coach John Beilein on Thursday when asked about conference parity.
“That’s college basketball,” he said. “That’s why we all love it.”
The Big Ten, arguably the best conference in college basketball, has few easy games. On paper, Wisconsin should handle Penn State, but there’s no guarantee.
“On any given night, anyone can beat anyone,” Iowa guard Josh Oglesby said.
Last season, a last-place Purdue team pulled out a win over Nebraska. The rebuilding Northwestern Wildcats beat Wisconsin in Madison. Penn State beat Ohio State twice.
“The Big Ten’s funny,” Michigan guard Spike Albrecht said. “Every year, it’s so good, so strong, yet anyone’s beatable.”
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.