The following was written for my Sports Journalism class (J475) at the University of Wisconsin, using quotes obtained from postgame press conference transcripts and stories on ESPN.com, FOXSports.com, and the New York Times.
From First Four to Final Four.
Two weeks ago, Virginia Commonwealth was on the bubble. A few days later, they were in Dayton as one of the last four teams into the NCAA tournament. From there, the Rams went to Chicago and San Antonio, embarrassing major conference teams along the way.
Now, after humbling No. 1 seed Kansas with a 71-61 victory, the VCU team that many believed did not even belong in the tournament is headed to the Final Four in Houston.
“Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game,” said Shaka Smart, the 33-year-old VCU head coach, to open the postgame press conference. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. We talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. That’s our theme throughout the NCAA tournament since we were selected.
“Our guys have done a phenomenal job putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job.”
It did not matter that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said VCU’s inclusion in the field of 68 was “indefensible.” Nor did it matter that Bilas’ colleague Joe Lunardi questioned whether the Rams’ defense could guard even him.
VCU did not even watch the selection show together on March 13, because Smart himself did not believe his team would be selected. Once they were, however, and once so many questioned whether they were deserving of such selection, Smart used those words as motivation throughout the first five rounds of the tournament.
Before the tipoff against the Jayhawks, one of KU’s star players was added to the list.
“You guys have had a good run,” forward Marcus Morris told Virginia Commonwealth guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell, according to ESPN.com. “But now it’s over.”
Morris’ words, much like those of Bilas and Lunardi before him, inspired and motivated VCU. Even after an impressive run of four wins over tough opponents to get there, few expected the Rams to even compete with the Jayhawks, especially after Kansas’ 20-point victory over 12th-seeded Richmond two days earlier.
Not only did they compete, Smart’s VCU squad shocked the basketball world, dominating the highest-seeded team remaining in the field. After giving Kansas the first six points of the game, the Rams’ hot shooting put them up by as many as 18 points in the first half, and by 14 at the half.
“We’ve played our best basketball when it matters most,” Smart said. “That’s why I’m sitting up here with a net around my neck.”
After controlling the game for the first 20 minutes, VCU held off Kansas’ comeback effort, which saw the Jayhawks go on a 12-0 run to cut the lead to four points just five minutes into the second half. The Rams would never give up their lead, despite letting KU get within two points following a Tyshawn Taylor 3-point play with 13:13 remaining.
From that point, VCU outscored Kansas 25-17 the rest of the way, the last six points of which came on free throws in the game’s final minute. Three-point baskets by forward Jamie Skeen, Rodriguez and guard Bradford Burgess, three of the Rams’ 12 made 3-pointers in the game, helped VCU retake the momentum and extend its lead.
Despite being on the verge of giving control of the game back to the Jayhawks early in the second half, when it looked like the Rams’ incredible tournament run was on the verge of ending, VCU never let the pressure of the big moment affect it.
“All the pressure was on them,” Burgess told the New York Times. “They were the No. 1 seed, and no one expected us to be here.”
VCU is just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four, with LSU having done so in 1986 and Colonial Athletic Association rival George Mason accomplishing the feat in 2006. But neither got there in as impressive a way as the Rams did.
LSU won four games by an average of 4.3 points, while Mason won four by 6.3 points. Both beat No. 1 seeds by two points in the regional finals. VCU won its five games by an average of 12 points.
In each of those five games, the Rams have knocked off a major conference opponent that was expected to beat them.
“We don’t back down,” VCU freshman guard Rob Brandenburg told FOXSports.com.
First, it was Pac-10 opponent USC by 15 points in Dayton. In Chicago, VCU knocked off Georgetown of the Big East and Purdue of the Big Ten by 18 points apiece. Finally, in San Antonio, VCU battled ACC foe Florida State to a one-point overtime victory before upsetting Big XII champion Kansas by 10 points.
For good measure, the Rams will face Butler, a fellow mid-major, in the semifinals. But if it reaches the championship game, a potential matchup with SEC tournament champion Kentucky would give VCU a shot at a clean sweep of all six major conferences.
When the final buzzer sounded and VCU cut down the nets in front of its black-and-yellow clad fans at the Alamodome, the Rams had accomplished something no other team had ever done. They won five games en route to a Final Four berth.
It typically takes four to reach the final weekend, six to win the championship. But by virtue of their inclusion in the First Four, the Rams will need seven victories to complete their run.
“One last thing,” Smart told the VCU fans afterward, “we’re not done yet.”
INDIANAPOLIS — It took little more than three minutes for Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan to sense something wasn’t right about his team Friday against Penn State.
With the Badgers trailing 10-0 in their second round game at Conseco Fieldhouse, he called for an early timeout and made a couple substitutions. As play resumed, Ryan stood in front of senior forward Keaton Nankivil and freshman Josh Gasser.
“I just can’t believe that you can’t compete better than that,” a noticeably frustrated Ryan said to his two underperforming starters.
Two hours later, Nankivil sat in front of his locker fielding questions from reporters. Once again, Wisconsin had made an early exit from the Big Ten tournament, suffering an ugly 36-33 loss to Penn State.
With a week to prepare for the NCAA tournament, Nankivil was faced with the question of what they needed to do to get ready, and whether there was enough time to do so.
“I think we have a lot of guys in here, we need to rededicate ourselves, especially for us seniors,” Nankivil said. “At this point, it’s one-and-done for your college career.
“There better be enough time, because we don’t have much time left.”
Between sitting on the bench early in the game and sitting at his locker following the loss, Nankivil walked off the court along with his teammates, dejected after seeing a solid defensive effort stymied by an awful shooting performance offensively.
When asked after the game how he felt, Nankivil thought of that walk.
“To be honest with you, I walked off the court about as frustrated as I’ve ever been today,” he said.
It was the first time the Badgers had lost consecutive games since a six-game losing streak in January 2009.
On the other side of the room was Gasser, a guard who despite starting for the Badgers, is relatively inexperienced, especially when it comes to postseason play.
For the freshman out of Port Washington, Wis., the question came up about what was going on with the team that could allow them to give up its highest point total in years one game and score its fewest in years the next.
Put simply, he just didn’t know.
According to his head coach, it didn’t have to do with focusing too much on one thing.
“The story of the guy, the coach who asked one of his players how his grades went, and the kid said, three Fs and a D, do you know the answer the coach came back with? He says, “I’ve got the answer for you. You spent way too much time on one class,” said Ryan. “Defensively we couldn’t have done things any worse than we did in our last game. So before you ask did we spend all our time on defense, no, but it might have looked like that.”
Another starter, Tim Jarmusz, remained confident in the Badgers’ ability to come back in a week and begin a strong postseason run.
Despite looking a lot like recent Wisconsin teams that have struggled late in the regular season before making early exits from the postseason, Jarmusz insisted that it would not happen again.
“It’s a new year; it’s not going to be the same, it’s not last year,” he said. “We’re a good team, we can bounce back and we will. I know we will.
“This is a good team with a bunch of good guys. We’ll be out ready to play. This is the last go round for at least the six of us and we’re going to make the most of it.”
MADISON — The Kohl Center, where streaks come to die.
One of the 17,230 fans packed inside the building on Dayton Street made a sign Saturday with the above statement. Another read “24-1.”
After a hard-fought 40 minutes, they were right on both accounts.
Behind an incredible second-half performance by junior guard Jordan Taylor, one that came when his team needed it most, Wisconsin handed No. 1 Ohio State its first loss, 71-67. With the win, the UW became just the eighth school since 1969-70 to defeat the AP No. 1 team in both football and basketball during the same academic year.
“It’s Madison, Wisconsin,” said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan of the upset. “It’s been said a lot of times about what this campus is like, what this school is all about. … Like I was telling people before, I think the basketball thing is a little different in February with Ohio State being No. 1.
“I don’t know about football rankings, and Ohio State was No. 1, I understand that. I just think in our sport, to be [24-0], you’ve had to win in November, December, January and into February. So, I kind of like ours because it just happened. I loved football’s because I was there at the game. It’s just all good for the school.”
Last time a school upset the nation’s No. 1 team in both sports? Florida, in 2006-07, also over Ohio State.
Heading into the matchup, Keaton Nankivil and the Badgers talked about looking to get off to a hot start and maintain a high level of intensity throughout, something that worked tremendously for the football team back on October 16.
Instead, the basketball version took a little different trajectory.
After a highlight montage from that victory at Camp Randall pumped up the crowd just before tipoff, Wisconsin jumped out to a fairly hot start, building a 12-6 lead through the first 6 1/2 minutes of play. Unlike the football team, however, that hot start did not translate into a dominant wire-to-wire victory.
In fact, the Badgers fell behind by as many as 15 points with 13:21 to play in the second half, stunning the home crowd. The next trip down the floor, trailing 47-32, Taylor hit a floater in the lane that sparked a 15-0 run to tie it.
“You have to give Wisconsin a ton of credit,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “We got that lead and had some great looks, I thought, but it just kind of went in and out on us. It flipped, we started missing shots and they started making shots.”
Just like that, in a matter of four minutes, the Badgers took what looked to be a sure blowout and flipped it into the type of back-and-forth battle it had been throughout the first half. Only, they weren’t done there.
After dropping behind once again by four points with 7:40 to play, the Badgers tied it at 55 just 42 seconds later on a Mike Bruesewitz 3-pointer. Over the next 2 1/2 minutes, Wisconsin reeled off nine unanswered for its largest lead of the game at 62-55.
Now, not only was Ryan’s squad not going to be blown out, it was in control against the nation’s best. And while Taylor’s 21 second-half points stand out, it was a true team effort that got them there.
“When we were down, I don’t think things really changed,” Taylor said. “They made a run, and we knew we had a run in us. … We eventually we started getting stops and started making plays and everybody made a big play. Not one person didn’t.”
Ohio State kept things interesting over the game’s final minutes, but with the raucous crowd behind it, Wisconsin would not relinquish its lead.
Despite their best efforts, William Buford‘s 21 points and Jared Sullinger‘s 19 point and 12 rebounds just weren’t enough. Despite all the talk surrounding Sullinger as a national player of the year candidate, he and Buford could not do it alone.
“Our game plan [was] to kind of limit his touches, because when he gets it down there, he is pretty much unstoppable,” said Jon Leuer of Sullinger. “It is hard to score if you don’t have the ball, and that is what we were trying to do with him.”
Taylor, who struggled in the first half, finished with a game-high 27 points and seven assists against just one turnover. Leuer, Bruesewitz and Josh Gasser joined him in scoring double digits, with 27 of the points between the four coming from beyond the arc.
As the clock ticked to zero, fans stormed the court, mobbing the Badgers for the second time in four months following a thrilling victory over the Buckeyes.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Taylor said. “We were at the football game when they beat Ohio State and a few of us got to go down on the field. Just to be in another court rusher game like that, similar to Duke last year, it was unbelievable.
“It’s something you remember forever.”
MADISON – Watching from the packed and highly energized stands at Camp Randall Stadium, one play in particular jumped out at Keaton Nankivil during the Oct. 16 football game between No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 1 Ohio State.
It’s a play that stood out to everyone else, too, as David Gilreath‘s 97-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff set the tone for the Badgers’ 31-18 upset and was voted play of the year by UW fans.
“Gilreath returning the kickoff, to me shows right off the bat they’re ready to play,” Nankivil said. “They’re not going to back down from anybody and they kind of made that first move. Secondly, the intensity throughout the entire game. I don’t think Wisconsin in that game really let up or gave Ohio State a chance to keep chipping away at it.”
Nankivil was joined at that memorable victory by each of his teammates, and they all got a great lesson in stepping up to a challenge.
When they host No. 1 Ohio State tomorrow at the Kohl Center, the Wisconsin basketball team will have a chance to show its ability to rise to the occasion as well.
To be successful, they’ll likely need to do the two things that most impressed Nankivil about the football team in that upset.
“In a little different fashion,” Nankivil said. “But those are two important things to what we can do against Ohio State as far as hopefully making that first move and hopefully keeping the intensity high. I think those are two things that would really help us out.”
Of course, head coach Bo Ryan‘s players are no strangers to big games, either. Just last season, Wisconsin – unranked at the time – knocked off No. 6 Duke, handing the Blue Devils their first-ever loss in the 10-year history of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
In that game, much like the football team did against Ohio State in October, the Badgers jumped out to a hot start with an early 19-9 lead and never let up. In fact, UW never trailed against Duke en route to the thrilling 73-69 victory.
For senior forward Jon Leuer, that hot start is exactly what sticks out in his mind about the big nonconference victory.
“We got off to a great start and we were able to knock some shots down early,” Leuer said. “Against a team like Ohio State, you can’t get in a hole, otherwise it’s tough to dig your way out. That’s the main thing is just to get off to a good start. But if you don’t, you have to be able to handle that adversity and climb back from it.”
Typically, the mentality heading into a big game such as Saturday’s is one of treating it like any other game. Ryan’s team does its best to maintain the same approach before and after each game, so as to avoid getting to high on any win and too low and any loss.
That being the case, the Badgers still recognize the opportunity presented by the matchup against the top-ranked team in the nation.
“Any time you get the No. 1 that’s kind of a once in a career type of thing,” junior guard Jordan Taylor said. “I don’t think a lot of guys get to play against the No. 1 team in the country, especially at home. I expect it to be fun, and loud, and we’ll be ready to go.”
With the opportunity comes the challenge, and the Buckeyes certainly provide a formidable one for Wisconsin.
In order to come away with the big victory, the Badgers will need to effectively limit freshman Jared Sullinger, a national player of the year candidate, while being sure not to forget about guys like William Buford, Aaron Craft, David Lighty and Jon Diebler.
Even if they can do all that, things will not come easily on the offensive end, either. Ohio State’s length and athleticism could cause plenty of problems for Wisconsin.
And finally, there’s that unbeatable factor, as OSU enters the matchup with a flawless 24-0 record. But that should only serve to further motivate the Badgers.
“Nobody else has been able to beat them, and we’d be the only team to have proven that we can beat them,” Leuer said. “So there’s a little extra incentive, but any time you step on the court you have the same motivations. You’re just hungry and you want to win, and that’s how we’re going to play.”
But on a night when a blizzard turned the University of Wisconsin campus into a snow globe, it was Wisconsin’s lone Arizona native that stole the spotlight in the 66-59 victory over Purdue.
Sophomore swingman Ryan Evans delivered by far his best performance of the season, and one that ranks right up there among the best in his young career.
Something seemed to spark Evans on the night, as he continued to improve as the game went along. When asked about it, he attributed his energy to teammate Wquinton Smith and UW Chancellor Biddy Martin.
“It’s been a rough year for me,” Evans said. “But [my coaches and teammates] continuing to believe in me, I knew that something had to get me going. I think one of the big things in the second half was Q — Q got in a little toss up with [Lewis] Jackson — and Biddy, I don’t know if Biddy’s in here but Biddy announcing that we don’t have school tomorrow, that got the fans going some.
“It felt real good, and hopefully I just can continue.”
Evans shot 5-of-9 on the night for 10 points — his fifth career double-digit performance and first of the season — while grabbing one rebound and one steal. But the numbers on the box score hardly do Evans’ performance justice.
After scoring four points in nine first-half minutes, Evans hit three of the biggest shots of the night in the second half.
With his team trailing by six with 10 minutes to go, Evans slammed home a lob from Taylor, electrifying the crowd and completely changing the momentum of the game. But that dunk was only the beginning.
“Any time you can get a guy who can get the crowd off its feet like Ryan can — that dunk was big,” Taylor said. “It was probably almost perfect timing. It couldn’t get any better than that, it got the crowd back into it.”
With the crowd back behind them, the Badgers battled the Boilermakers in a back-and-forth game over the final 10 minutes, with a handful of plays by Evans putting Wisconsin over the top.
In the final minute, as UW trailed by one following a layup by Purdue guard D.J. Byrd, Evans got the ball just inside the lane and without hesitation, pulled up for the two-point jumper. As it went through with 50 seconds remaining, Evans gave the Badgers the lead back, and one they would not relinquish.
“Those are the shots that he can hit,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “That’s a very high percentage shot for him. So it wasn’t a surprise. If you look at the baskets he made last year, those are the types of shots that he shoots a very high percentage on.
“Looks good coming through the bottom of the net, because that means it makes the scoreboard move.”
With two big second half shots to his credit, Evans had more than done his part, especially considering he entered the game averaging just 2.7 points per game on the year and 0.8 points per contest in Big Ten play. But he still was not done.
After a Josh Gasser free throw gave Wisconsin a four-point lead with 31 seconds to play, Evans took the ball away from E’Twaun Moore on the other end. Evans’ steal set up a pair of Taylor free throws, which all but sealed the deal.
Finally, in a fitting end that he could not have scripted better himself, Evans delivered the game’s final points to give the Badgers the 66-59 victory.
Following a long rebound off a Moore missed three, Taylor found Evans streaking to the basket all alone. Once again, the crowd erupted as Evans threw down an emphatic breakaway dunk.
“We’ve been talking all year round about how we have guys that people might not think twice about just because they might not be the big names,” Taylor said. “Ryan, we’ve been saying what he can give to this team all year long. It was just a little show tonight, he can probably even add from there.”
MADISON — It was the Jordan show Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
One guard named Jordan got off to a hot start, pushing his team out to an early lead. The other came alive when his team needed him most, and sealed the deal late by dribbling out the game’s final seconds.
Less than five minutes into the game, Jordan Hulls scored 10 straight points for Indiana on four shots from the field, pushing the Hoosiers’ lead from 6-4 to 14-6. Hulls would add just six more points, however, finishing with a team-high 16 on 7-of-12 shooting.
Hulls, who averages 10 points per game, went 2-for-4 from 3-point range, which fell in line with his season average of 51.7 percent from long distance.
“You let your best players play,” IU head coach Tom Crean said of Hulls’ shooting. “Jordan took shots, he was very aggressive and I think there’s some growth with him on that part. I don’t think it’s anything special that we’re doing. We’ve been saying he needs to shoot the ball more since last year.”
Jordan Taylor, on the other hand, was just getting started after Hulls had completed his 10-point streak. With just four points on two layups to that point, Taylor exploded for a career-high 28 points while shooting 9-of-15 from the floor and a perfect 7-for-7 at the free throw line.
Taylor added his own stretch of eight straight points for the Badgers, which cut the Hoosiers’ lead to 19-18, midway through the first half. The junior guard also finished the first half with five straight to make it 34-30 at the break.
In the second half, Taylor really took control of the game, scoring nine of Wisconsin’s 11 points over a five-minute stretch that determined the outcome of the game. During that same time, the Badgers’ went from down 48-47 to a 58-52 lead.
“Jordan really progressed over the past three years,” said Wquinton Smith, who has guarded Taylor in practice over the same span. “He’s getting more confident with his shot and it’s more hard to guard him in practice. I get a little frustrated sometimes.
“That’s what he’s been showing against all the Big Ten guards. He’s holding his own, and to me is the best guard in the Big Ten.”
Smith, who was impressive in his own right with two points, two assists and a steal in 12 minutes of play, was far from the only one impressed by Taylor on the night.
Crean, a coach that is very familiar with Bo Ryan‘s program dating back to his time at Marquette, alluded to Taylor being comparable to former UW guard Devin Harris. As for his rank among current players, Crean said he thought Taylor was up their among the nation’s elite.
“I think Jordan Taylor’s not only one of the premier guards in the league — that’s obvious — I think he’s one of the premier guards in the country,” Crean said. “And it’s not just because he played great tonight. He is an outstanding player.
“He’s got all three facets when it comes to scoring — he can get to the rim with anybody, he’s got a great shot fake… he’s got the mid-range game, and he’s certainly got the 3-point game.”
Modest to the point of continually downplaying any personal accomplishments, Taylor credited his teammates Thursday any time he was asked about something he did.
Along with that modesty, however, Taylor has an unmistakable confidence about him that allows him to succeed. With his 28-point performance, Taylor took back the Big Ten scoring lead in conference games. He’s averaging 22 points per contest, one better than Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson at 21 points per game.
“Jordan, as people are finding out, is a pretty good player,” Ryan said. “He’s been very instrumental in putting us in the position that we’re in right now. And we’re definitely going to need him to continue to play like that, that’s for sure.”
MADISON — No band, no cheerleaders, no problem.
For the better part of two months, the Kohl Center was hardly an intimidating home arena, with the student section quiet and relatively empty, even as the Badgers routinely defeated opponents by 20-plus points.
With thousands from the University already in Pasadena by Tuesday night, Wisconsin electrified the crowd, knocking off border rival Minnesota, 68-60, and kicking off the Big Ten season with a bang in the process.
“It was a big win for us. Definitely,” said Jon Leuer, one of four Minnesota natives on the UW squad. “They’ve kind of had our number over the last couple years, so to get this one it felt good definitely.
“We’re 1-0 in the Big Ten, and we have 17 to go.”
Though most Wisconsin fans may be California dreamin’ this week, the 24th-ranked basketball team showed it deserved some attention as well. True to form, Bo Ryan‘s squad did it through ball security and free throw shooting.
While they were outrebounded and outscored in the paint by wide margins, the Badgers only turned the ball over twice while connecting on 17-of-18 free throws.
Of those two turnovers, one came on a Ryan Evans traveling violation early in the second half, while the other was an uncharacteristic mistake by Taylor just three minutes into the game, which allowed Trevor Mbakwe to grab the steal. For two stretches of about 17 minutes, Wisconsin did not give the ball away.
Afterward, Ryan compared it to the Feb. 28, 2008 game against Michigan State, when Joe Krabbenhoft committed the only turnover in the game in the Badgers’ 57-42 victory.
“Kelby Krabbenhoft is here, and he said two is too many because in the game where we only had one, his son had it,” Ryan said. “So Kelby thought two was too many.
“I thought we did a great job of taking care of the ball. I thought they were pretty active. We got ourselves into some situations where I didn’t know if we were going to be able to attack, retreat, get it out, get it over, and we did.”
After trailing by five points midway through the first half, Wisconsin took control and led by as much at 10 points with 18:19 to go in the game. But Minnesota continued to fight, tying the game at 56 apiece with under six minutes to play.
Minnesota native Jordan Taylor hit a three to put the Badgers back out in front on the next possession, but his biggest play came in the game’s final two minutes, though whether it was the game’s biggest play remains up for debate.
With 1:12 to go, Taylor penetrated the Minnesota defense and put it off the glass and in, while crashing to the floor in the process. His drive sparked the team, and the added free throw for the three-point play all but sealed the Wisconsin victory.
“It was a momentum swing, but I think the biggest play of the game was Jon’s offensive rebound,” Taylor said. “We were up two, and that rebound allows us to get the ball and shoot free throws the rest of the way out.”
Taylor deferred to Leuer’s rebound, which came on the Badgers’ next possession, off a missed three by Taylor.
Leuer grabbed the ball off the glass for just the fourth offensive board of the game for UW, and the two combined to hit six free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal it. Ask the 6-foot-10 forward about his rebound, however, and he’ll defer to Taylor’s three-point play.
“No, I think that and-one was a bigger play,” Leuer said. “It was a time when the game was really close, he drove and I didn’t even see him because both their big guys jumped. I just saw the ball go up, hit off the backboard and it was an and-one. I was very excited at that point.”
As the Badgers secured the ball throughout the contest — their two turnovers was an NCAA low for the season, breaking their own previous mark of three — Taylor led the way with seven assists against just one turnover.
He added a game-high 22 points, while playing 39 minutes against a handful of tough Minnesota guards. The Big Ten is a point guard heavy league, and Taylor has certainly shown that he deserves to be in the discussion among the Big Ten’s best.
“He’s the most impressive point guard we’ve played against this year,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smithsaid of Taylor.
“To play a game with just two turnovers, and for him to go 7:1, that’s pretty good, assist-to-turnover,” Ryan said. “He’s definitely our leader on the court. His and-one I think kind of inspired the other guys. I’m glad he’s on our team.”