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Friday, April 4, 2014
On biggest stage, Wisconsin still laughing

By Eamonn Brennan


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Josh Gasser was trying to look angry. It wasn't going well.

It was Thursday afternoon in the cavernous bowels of AT&T Stadium, and Wisconsin's players were shuffling through the usual Final Four production line. Gasser, atop a stool and a white muslin backdrop, was doing his best to comply with a cameraman's requests. He needed dramatic still shots of each player for Saturday's Final Four broadcast, and he had some props for the job: a rim, a net, a carved-up basketball.

The photographer handed the last of these to Gasser and told him to look like he was ripping the two sides of the basketball apart. He asked for an angry, intense face. Gasser's backcourt mate, Ben Brust, had found the same pose a few minutes earlier to impressive, snarling effect: It really did look like Brust was ripping the ball in half.

Instead of looking at the camera, Gasser angled his face down until he was peering into the ball. He halfheartedly opened his mouth, like a child being forced to take a vitamin. It was all wrong.

Brust and forward Sam Dekker burst out laughing.

"What are you doing?" Brust said. "You're supposed to look like you're tearing it, not eating it."

"Also, stop flexing," Dekker said.

"They told me to flex!" Gasser said.

Bo Ryan
Bo Ryan has built his program with players who fit what he wants to do.
"Awkward," Brust said. He nodded in resignation.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are your Wisconsin Badgers.

This is the precision offensive machine that sliced up Baylor two days after the Bears beat Creighton by 30. This is the 30-7 team that rode star forward Frank Kaminsky's 28 points and 11 rebounds to a toppling of No. 1 Arizona, the nation's best defensive team, in a thrilling Elite Eight overtime win. These are the players who will stand across from Kentucky's supremely talented crop of future NBA lottery picks Saturday night in front of 80,000-plus fans in a stadium that covers 73 acres of North Texas land. These are the Badgers on the biggest stage of their young careers.

They are also the comedy kings of the Final Four -- witty, self-deprecating, down to Earth and irresistibly goofy. Except for the whole being awesome at basketball thing, the 2013-14 Badgers seem, all in all, like pretty normal dudes. You could chill with them.

This is not exactly an accident. For 14 seasons, Bo Ryan has steadily, stubbornly built his program with players who fit what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. His style of play -- the swing offense, the pack-line defense -- is immutable, so Ryan can target very specific kinds of players who fit the precise annual requirements, on and off the court. Guards need to post up. Forwards have to play away from the basket. There are few elite recruits here; Ryan has started just four true freshmen in his entire Wisconsin tenure. Dekker -- a Sheboygan, Wis., native ranked 17th overall in the 2012 class -- was one of them.

Egos aren't managed; they simply aren't tolerated. Smarts are prized. Everyone needs to get along.

When your coach spends approximately 80 percent of his media availabilities making jokes of his own, "getting along" usually means having a sense of humor.

"This is my vision of the game," Ryan said. "This is my way of being a teacher-slash-coach."

On Friday, for approximately the 897th time this week, Ryan was asked about his philosophy on one-and-dones. The contrast between Wisconsin's players and Kentucky's has drawn the predictable, occasionally faux-outraged, contrasts. Ryan was asked on Friday whether there was a "right way or a wrong way to run a basketball program." John Calipari came up with a new catch phrase for "one-and-done" ("succeed and proceed") because he is so tired of answering the questions. Some in the assembled media here seem eager to make this game a battle in some imaginary war for college basketball's soul.

Kaminsky was even less subtle about the whole thing.

"Sometimes, we kind of fail that eye test," Kaminsky said. "But it doesn't matter when the game starts. It matters how we play. … People can say we look like this and we look like that -- we look like a bunch of white guys -- but it doesn't matter at the end of the day."

Thing is, none of that dichotomous stuff -- veterans versus freshmen, talent versus experience, patience versus immediate gratification -- is what's actually interesting about Wisconsin.

What's interesting about Wisconsin is that it's really funny.

Kaminsky's well-documented comedy skills were on display again Friday. When asked whether, like many big men, he was slow to develop -- "did you have trouble walking and chewing gum?" was an actual question Kaminsky was asked -- he replied that his "biggest battle was with doorways."

"I used to hit my head on everything," he said. "Learning to duck was my first big battle, but I knew once I conquered that, I would be good going forward."

At open practice, as Dekker and others took turns with an impromptu post-practice dunk contest, Kaminsky motioned Brust -- listed at 6-foot-1 and allergic to elevation -- to run at him. Kaminsky lifted Brust into the air for an assisted dunk. Traevon Jackson erupted, pretending he had just seen the best dunk of his life; the two hip-bumped in celebration.

After practice, senior reserve Zach Bohannon screamed "Go Badgers!" at the media members hunched over laptops.

On Thursday, freshman forward Nigel Hayes would prepare for his own photo shoot by doing 15 pushups, telling a reporter he had to get his arms "ready for prime time."

The rest of the team had gravitated toward a large studio Turner and CBS built for dramatic pregame introductions. The starters would dribble the ball and say their own names; at the end, they would walk forward dramatically and bellow "We are Wisconsin." Bohannon and Duje Dukan wanted to watch the awkwardness ensue.

"Are you two starters?" a woman with a clipboard asked them.

"Oh, no," Dekan said. "We suck."

The woman with the clipboard hesitated, and the two enjoyed the forced, awkward pause. Then, they laughed.