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Wisconsin has its fun, but Badgers mean business

4/2/2015



INDIANAPOLIS -- It was pretty obvious from the outset: Frank Kaminsky had "Super Smash Bros." on the brain.

Anyone who has ever even dabbled in video games can relate to the feeling. It's that strange mix of twitchy obsession and mild addiction. It's looking at the clock knowing you should stop. It's the famous last words: "Just one more game."

On Thursday, four players from each of the four national semifinalists took the news conference dais together. What could have been an awkward arrangement instead gave Kaminsky an opportunity to discuss his team's current compulsion -- the original "Super Smash Bros." on Nintendo 64 -- with the player who will likely spend the majority of Saturday's massive national semifinal trying to stop him: Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein.

"Personality-wise, we were talking about 'Super Smash Bros.' on the way up here, so I feel like we would get along," Kaminsky said, when asked what he knew about his potential foil's personality.

With the biggest moment of their basketball lives approaching, were Kaminsky and his relentlessly goofy teammates "tightening up"?

"Yes and no," Kaminsky said. "I mean, we played 'Super Smash Bros.' in our hospitality room for a while last night while the barber was in there, hanging out, chilling out, having fun. When we got on the court today for practice, all seriousness. We know how to flip it when we need to."

Few quotes could better illustrate the internal clock of these 2014-15 Wisconsin Badgers. It's the same defining ethos that guided last season's team, when essentially the same group of players greeted its first collective trip to the Final Four with an unusual degree of humor and self-deprecation. The Final Four is a huge stage, literally and metaphorically; every player's appearance represents the culmination of a lifetime of mostly unseen grind. Every March, fans are bombarded by the dire seriousness of it all.

It is serious. But it should also be fun. And no one has more fun than Wisconsin.

You've already heard about -- or retweeted -- the Badgers' comedic exploits. Kaminsky's GoPro camera and Will Ferrell interview and "SportsCenter" sweatpants. Hayes' fascination with both the form and function of the NCAA stenographer. The list goes on.

On Tuesday, at their own media day in Madison, Wisconsin, the Badgers were at it again. ESPN's Jeff Goodman asked Kaminsky whether he was still the fourth-best "FIFA" player on the team. That resulted in a lengthy diatribe about Kaminsky's relative skill at the game, with Hayes, Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser detailing the teammates who outrank him.

Eventually, Hayes interjected, insisting that the Badgers cared far less about "FIFA" than "Smash battles."

"We're a 'Super Smash Bros.' team, so 'FIFA' has really taken a backseat to that," Hayes said. In doing so, the sophomore forward offered a less-than-family-friendly term for, presumably, what happens when "Smash" character Kirby uses his special attack -- inhalation -- to drop an opponent off the arena's edge, which is how "Smash" battles are decided. Kaminsky, Dekker and Gasser spiraled into an interview-ending giggle fit.

The Kirby love continued apace on Thursday. After Kaminsky revealed his pre-news conference conversation with Cauley-Stein, the two were asked about their favorite characters, because of course they were.

"I've been trying Captain Falcon," Kaminsky said. "He's really slow, so I think I'm going back to Kirby."

"I play with Kirby just because he can change," Cauley-Stein said. "He can change into anybody he's playing against. And he flies around, so when you get knocked off the little stage, you can just fly back and you don't have to worry about jumping."

On the merits, Kirby makes sense. In 2011, he ranked second in a competitive tier list compiled by 64 Back Room, a popular Nintendo forum, which is (A) about as definitive as "Smash" tier lists get; and (B), more than you needed to know about the insane subculture that has formed around competitive "Super Smash Bros." ("Tier lists," by the way, are rankings used to determine character strengths, and account for balance, in competition. For the record, Captain Falcon is No. 4, mostly thanks to his slow-moving special attack. And now you know even more.)

But Kirby is also a fitting choice for both. Kaminsky is the player of the year in large part because of his versatility on the offensive end -- not only his passing and ballhandling from the wing but his ability to move from the wing to the block and back again, forcing any defender into a disadvantageous mismatch. Cauley-Stein is the best defender in college basketball not just because he is one of its best rim protectors, but also because, at 7 feet, he is perhaps its best perimeter defender, too. If any two players in the sport can "change into who they're playing against," these are they.

On Saturday, Kentucky coach John Calipari will almost certainly stick Cauley-Stein on Kaminsky, if not for the entire game then for most of it, in just one more epic subplot of an already mind-boggling Final Four matchup.

What happens when Kirby faces Kirby? Who inhales whom?

Wait, what are we even talking about? This is the Final Four! It's serious business!

Coach, please, bring us back to the matter at hand.

"[On Tuesday], I made a statement that I was the pinball wizard of the state of Pennsylvania in the 1960s," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Do you know how many guys said, 'Wait a minute, you weren't that good. [I'm] better than you. When do you want to play again?' So it did exactly what I wanted it to do -- just what these guys are doing when they get into their needling about who is the best video games guy.

"They have their fun. Believe me, when they get on the practice court, they're looking at film, they're playing in the games, they understand what competition is about."

Fair enough. Now who's up for some "Smash"?