With Badgers in Boston, a fight to finish
When did the Rust Belt suddenly turn into Tobacco Road? When did the glamour and glitter of this college basketball season, which has been dominated by Kentucky, Syracuse, and North Carolina, suddenly turn into a blue-collar event?
We might have a Final Four with Kansas, Michigan State, Syracuse, and North Carolina, all No. 1 seeds, just like in 2008, when the No. 1 seeds - North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, and UCLA- all made it to the final weekend in San Antonio.
But that Final Four had some geographical diversity.
Look what this Sweet 16 has brought us. Four teams from the state of Ohio - Ohio State, Xavier, Cincinnati, and Ohio University.
Four teams from the Big Ten - Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Indiana. It might have been five if Purdue had been able to hold off Kansas Sunday night.
Then it gets weird. The West Region in Phoenix includes Michigan State, Louisville, Marquette, and Florida.
The most “western’’ team remaining is Baylor, in Waco, Texas, which will play in the South Regional in Atlanta.
And then there is the Rust Belt factor. If you are generous and include most of the Midwest, you have half the remaining field: Indiana, Michigan State, the four teams from Ohio, Marquette (Milwaukee), and Kansas.
Wisconsin and Ohio State are coming to Boston this week for the East Regional at TD Garden, joined by Cincinnati and Syracuse.
The Sweet 16 is not new territory for Wisconsin, which will play Syracuse in Thursday’s first game. The Badgers were in it a year ago, but were knocked off by Butler in a Southeast Regional semifinal game. But they have been in the tournament for 14 seasons. Only Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State have longer current streaks.
The Badgers came out of Albuquerque with wins over Montana and Vanderbilt to get to Boston.
They are a reflection of their coach Bo Ryan, who is the winningest coach in Badger history and has built his legacy in the Midwest with a string of success at Wisconsin-Platteville, where he won four Division 3 national championships before moving up to Madison, where in 11 years he has the highest winning percentage in Big Ten history.
Ryan’s teams seldom dazzle with flash-and-dash basketball. What they do is play tough defense, seldom beat themselves, and bring in a core group of Midwest kids, such as 6-foot-6-inch junior forward Mike Bruesewitz, a St. Paul native. Bruesewitz was one of five players in double figures in the grind-it-out win over Vanderbilt.
Kids such as 6-10 junior Jared Berggren, who also came out of Minnesota and can beat you inside (six rebounds) or outside (12 points, including a key 3-point shot against Vanderbilt).
And then you have the linchpin to the unit, 6-1 senior Jordan Taylor from Minnesota who established himself as one of the best point guards in the Big Ten, if not in the country, the past few years.
Yet none have been superstars this season. All have been drawn by the quest of making it back to the Sweet 16 - and beyond.
“Last summer, before the season started, we knew what we had coming in,’’ said Taylor. “We had a pretty balanced scoring attack. We felt like we had guys that put the ball in the hole.’’
Ryan again has put the pieces together into a unit that wins. “We love the game,’’ said Ryan. “And we really don’t care about the peripheral things. I think people have learned that over the years. There are just some programs that have a way of doing things.
“They keep working hard and then sometimes every once in awhile things fall into place. Guys get hot. That’s what the NCAA Tournament is. We’re not anything but who we are and people can dissect that any way they want.’’
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.