Thursday, March 06, 2008

Rising to the top on Senior Night

The team. This year, it's all about the team.

Don't get me wrong -- last year was about the team, too. But this year there aren't any superstars to promote. This year there wasn't another clear favorite in the conference; there was no Oden/Conley connection, there was no 37-1 Illinois team, there was just a trophy waiting for someone to go out there and earn it. This team coalesced and somehow, unexpectedly, Bo Ryan worked his magic, getting the most out of the recruits experts around the Midwest declared "good but not great" and leading a championship squad for the fourth time in seven years (three times in the regular season, once in the conference tournament).

The Badgers don't lose very much at the Kohl Center, so when I made my prediction about last night's game I didn't see a loss. But the Nittany Lions had put together a miniature hot streak and had, like the Badgers, started to really find their identity as a team. I don't think anybody foresaw the 36-point margin of victory that the Badgers secured, but then again it's likely the victory would have been less lopsided if Jamelle Cornley had been healthy enough to play. Add in a sub-30% shooting percentage for the Nittany Lions and, well, that's ballgame.

Wisconsin looked good; indeed, if you click through to Black Shoe Diaries above, Mike says "Even though Penn State was getting killed it was kind of a joy to see the Badgers playing the game so well. They could really do some damage in the tournament if they play like that." And that's really the kind of reaction this team evokes. When one player is having an off-night, another fills in without hesitation and keeps the Badger victories coming. Last night everyone stepped up, whether it was Marcus Landry scoring Wisconsin's first seven points, Brian Butch contributing 12, Stiemsma with 10, Flowers with 8 boards and 9 assists, Krabbenhoft with a monster dunk(!), or Tanner Bronson playing that sweet string music from 24 feet away(!!!).

And they've done it all without a trace of arrogance, without any of the chest-thumping antics that turn you from a winner to a gloater. (They're leaving that to the fans, it seems; as BadgerCentric says, "Our opponents' student sections rush the floor when they beat us. Our students rush the floor when we win championships."

I do want to give a special shout-out to Purdue. It's tough to watch another team win a championship when you've had their number all year. Trust me, Wisconsin fans know this from experience. How many times have we beaten Michigan State only to bow out in the first round of the Big Dance and watch them go to the Final Four? How many times have we beaten Ohio State in football just to see them collect their hardware at the end of the season anyway? I really do feel for all of you Purdue fans; your team is a fantastic surprise (you think Wisconsin came out of nowhere this year? What about Purdue!?) and I don't look forward to seeing the Badgers match up against the Boilermakers in the Big Ten Tournament if it comes down to them. As Walter Sobchek would say, Purdue is a worthy adversary, and any team that winds up opposite them in the conference or national tournament has much to dread.

However, despite all that, it would be nice to keep this trophy to ourselves in Madison. The Badgers have a day to celebrate and then need to make sure the Wildcats of Northwestern don't sneak up on them.