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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

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In Sports

Nigel Hayes and the Wisconsin Badgers have their eyes set on a national title. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

Badgers aim to make Final Four trip a memorable one


Way back on Nov. 4, 2013, the Kentucky Wildcats were deemed the best college basketball team in the nation – and not just by the media. John Calipari's fellow coaches felt the same way, too.

Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers were ranked, too, No. 20 in the Associated Press poll and No. 21 by the coaches.

Then the ball was thrown up in the air, and things change. The Badgers won 16 straight to start the season and rose to No. 3 in the nation, the lost five of six to fall to out of the Top 25.

Kentucky had its issues, too, losing four of its last seven heading into the Southeastern Conference Tournament and completed the tumble from No. 1 to unranked.

Now, they meet in the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, for the right to play for a national championship.

Much has been in the "contrast in styles" between the two programs, which Ryan quickly dismisses.

"Kentucky's trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying to put the ball in the hole," he said. "We're trying to keep them from doing it. They're trying to keep us from doing it. I didn't know there were that many styles.

"I don't see it totally as that. If other people do, they could explain to you why. But we are who we are right now. We're not changing. They're who they are right now. Whatever people want to say about styles and all that, I leave that up to them. I've never gotten caught up in that kind of a conversation."

Perhaps it's the idea that the Badgers are built on "program" guys – four-year players like senior Ben Brust and redshirt junior Josh Gasser and juniors Frank Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson; and that Kentucky is built on potential "one-and-dones" in freshmen Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and James Young.

Maybe it's because Wisconsin hasn't been to the Final Four since 2000 and Kentucky is making its third trip in four years.

What both teams have in common, however, is that at some point this season, they were counted out.

"Yeah, both teams need to be recognized for being good," Gasser said. "You're in the Final Four, you obviously did something right. Kentucky deserves credit for being a good team, and I think so do we. We've beaten a ton of good teams this year, and I think that speaks for itself. We don't really care what the outside perception is of us."

Added Calipari: "In the end we got the plane down barely. We almost ran out of runway. This team was built up to be torn down. I always wonder if it's the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team. But they withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered. They kept believing. They were their brother's keeper. They believed in the leadership. They believed in the staff. They believed in the system and the process. It never went away. I never stopped believing in this team or the players on it, and I mean each individual player.

"So that in itself is a great story of how in the world did you guys overcome that? Well, it made us stronger. It made us tougher. It made us harder."

Now, both are playing to their potential.

Which is why many feel the Badgers – despite being a higher seed to start the tournament – are an underdog on Saturday night.

"It's still not done yet," Jackson said. "We're excited we made the Final Four. We're excited to go down and have an opportunity. But to complete the assignment is still at hand."

The assignment will be tough.

Randle is a handful at 6-feet, 9-inches and 250 pounds. Young is a 6-6, 215 pound combo player while the Harrison twins each stand 6-6. The Badgers do catch a break in that 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein will not play due to injury.

"They've got good size," said Dekker, who is 6-8. "Everyone knows that. But we've got guys that are going to fight and claw and do everything they can to get a win. When you've got four guys on the court that are with you with the same mindset, it doesn't really matter how big you are. It just matters how much you want it and how much you're willing to fight for it."

Both teams have had that fight all year long – the Badgers just hope their will is stronger on Saturday.

"We want to win this next 40 and then hopefully get to another one and win another," Dekker said. "We have all intentions of going down there and reaching another goal of ours, and we're excited to do it."

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