Sixteen seconds. Well, 16.4 to be exact.
The Wisconsin Badgers needed to defend, to hold Kentucky without a basket, for that finite, yet ungodly long, amount of time to advance to the NCAA championship game. Two
Traevon Jackson free throws had given the Badgers a 73-71 lead over the Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four, but Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison buried a game-winning 3-pointer with just over five seconds left to leave Bo Ryan and his Badgers headed home.
Now, seven months later, the Badgers head into the 2014-15 season as national championship favorites – along with Kentucky – as they open play Friday as the third ranked team in the country behind Kentucky and Arizona. (Ironically, the Badgers nipped the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite Eight.)
And if you’re thought of as a national title contender, it makes sense that Ryan’s squad has been picked to win the Big Ten, ahead of Michigan State and Ohio State.
And if you’re thought of to win a power conference, you likely have a stacked roster. The Badgers return six of their top eight scorers from a year ago, headlined by 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky, who is the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and was named to the Associated Press’ preseason All-American team.
Junior Sam Dekker also received All-American votes, is also an All-Big Ten pick, and some feel he could be a high first round selection in the next NBA Draft should he make this his last year in Madison.
Now, Ryan’s teams are always highly regarded. But this is a little different.
"I don't think my guys are thinking about that," Ryan said. "Our guys live in the moment, or at least we're trying to it appears that way. They're trying to get better. They know there's weaknesses to shore up, and we're trying to accentuate our strengths. Basketball is a game of momentum, a game of streaks, which we saw last year with our season."
Of course, Ryan and his team are quick to point out the loss of senior leader Ben Brust, and he was a good college player, but Jackson is back for his senior year, as is Josh Gasser. And, young sophomore Bronson Koenig got some experience last year, too.
Guards matter, of course, but this Badgers team begins from the inside-out with Kaminsky, the NCAA West Region’s Most Outstanding Player who finished the year averaging 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds.
He is the first Badgers player to be named to a preseason All-American team since the AP started naming such teams in 1986-87.
"I’m not really thinking much about it, I’m just going to go out there and play the way I know how to play," Kaminsky said. "It’s kind of weird seeing how all these people say all of these different things. I know it’s getting annoying for myself with Twitter and emailing and things like that, but I’m just excited for the season to start, so maybe some of that will go away."
Ryan added: "He’s trying to get better, he’s a very good player and he’s trying to get better, and that’s all I’m looking for. That’s all his teammates are looking for, too."
Alongside Kaminsky is Dekker, and dynamic 6-8 sophomores Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes.
"There's no question that Wisconsin is the class, but Wisconsin gets picked second or third when he's got nobody back, so I think that tells you a lot about Bo and what he's done," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
"But he does have a very, very good team and a lot of guys back and stability, and he's got guards and he's got bigs, so he's got a little bit of everything. He's got a great wing, a great point guard and a great center. And when you have that, a lot of good things can happen as did for us last year."
So while the preseason expectation is far different from seasons past, Ryan is determined to approach this year as he has in the past – but hope for a similar tournament run as last spring.
"We're trying to get them better, not just as individuals but as teammates," he said. "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. We're not. The coaching staff isn't. The players are the ones that put a lot of time in in the off season. The returning players, they're hoping that pays off, and that's all you can do.
"You can prepare, you train, you take care of business in the classroom, you put yourself in a position to be successful, and then let's play."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.