By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Late into overtime of Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament title tilt, with a Wisconsin win and championship in hand, Frank Kaminsky waved his arms through the air and pumped up the red-clad United Center crowd.READ MORE: Ed's Tech Notes: Apple Cutting Production On iPhone 13, Twitter's New Feature, Drone Delivers Lungs For Transplant
Those Badger fans infiltrating Chicago’s West Side leaped from their seats celebrating. Wisconsin finished the overtime with a 11-0 run over Michigan State, that after overcoming an 11-point deficit in the second half. There was plenty of reason to celebrate.
Had Kaminsky not played like the front-runner for National Player of the Year or Bronson Koenig not caught fire in the second half, Michigan State would’ve earned its second straight Big Ten Tournament crown and the Wisconsin fans would’ve gone home hanging their heads.
Their car ride home stuck in Sunday traffic on the Kennedy would’ve been spent wondering whether this team has what it takes to reach the Final Four — the standard for success these players and their future Hall of Fame coach, Bo Ryan, must live up to. Anything short of that makes this season a disappointment.
Remarkably, the Badgers appear numb to the harsh realities and steep expectations stacked in front of them.
“We can’t always be thinking about basketball 24/7, because it can end quickly and there’s so much more to life,” senior guard Josh Gasser said.
Smiling and laughing throughout the postgame celebration, the Badgers took in their title with joy. At 31-3 on the season, Wisconsin has plenty of reason to be happy.
Sunday’s win locked up the first 1-seed in Wisconsin’s long basketball history, something revealed on the CBS national broadcast with the cameras on the Badgers in a United Center lounge. When the matchup was delivered — a trip to Omaha and opener with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (what is a Chanticleer?) — they rose up, offered one clap, then sat back down, a celebration choreographed by Kaminsky.
“We’re just a different team and a good group of guys,” sophomore guard Zak Showalter said.
Ryan had a more poised reaction to the top seed.
“For us to get that one and get the No. 1 seed, these guys are extremely proud to represent the university that way,” Ryan said.
And there’s your look into what makes the Badgers click. This most certainly is a different team, and that’s what brings such success.
Ryan is a rough, rigid coach known for his hard-nosed demeanor and that Grinch-like scowl. He has 734 career wins and has brought the Badgers 14 tournament berths in his 14 years in Madison.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Warm Temps For The Bears Game
“We’ve loosened him up a little bit,” Showalter said.
This may be true, because even Ryan was spotted cracking a smile throughout three days of winning in Chicago. Heck, these Badgers can bring out the best in anyone.
On the court, Wisconsin plays a beautiful form of basketball. It has so many weapons, from Kaminsky to Gasser to Nigel Hayes to Sam Dekker. The Badgers can beat you in so many ways, and they know it, too, because Ryan has instilled a confidence in them.
Wisconsin seems to be machine-like when it’s playing. Even a double-digit deficit to Tom Izzo’s Spartans didn’t faze them Sunday, and such poise when facing adversity will help the the Badgers in the Big Dance.
What makes Wisconsin click is what happens away from the court. The Badgers spend long hours together in the locker room or convened at teammates’ apartments. They’re not buried in a Ryan game plan or scouting report, but their focus is on the tournament — a Super Smash Bros. tournament on Nintendo 64.
“It became a huge competition,” said sophomore forward Vitto Brown, the perennial 1-seed of these Nintendo tournaments.
Super Smash Bros. brings the Badgers together away from the court. Before Brown brought the old Nintendo 64 to the locker room, they played ping-pong for hours and hours after practice.
Chemistry for the Badgers formed like this. It’s almost as if the Badgers are oblivious to the great pressure they face, to how a tremendous season could be seen as a disappointment. They’re having too much fun to get worked up.
“We’re regular kids,” Gasser said. “We’re college kids. We like to hang out, we go to school, we like to go out and have a good time, joke around with each other. We’re just that type people.”
Just as Wisconsin took the United Center floor for warmups Sunday, Kentucky had earned a 34-0 mark in the regular season with an SEC Tournament crown, and the Wildcats went straight to the locker room without cutting down the nets. John Calipari claimed they “forgot” about the ladder, scissors and corporate-sponsored photo ops. They won’t settle for anything but perfection and a national championship.
When the Badgers won hours later, Kaminsky had a GoPro strapped to his chest. Teammates poked fun at Koenig for not winning the tournament most valuable player award. They just don’t take themselves too seriously.
“That’s kind of how our team has always been,” Showalter said. “I think we got a reputation for that. If we can keep that up, it kind of translates to success.”
The Wisconsin way to winning is as fun as it appears.MORE NEWS: State Police Investigate Shooting On Kennedy Expressway Feeder Ramp
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.