Dienhart: How Wisconsin made it to Final Four

When the season dawned, Michigan State was the consensus pick to win the Big Ten. And for good reason, with talents like Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson, among others.

Wisconsin? The Badgers were supposed to be good—they always are under Bo Ryan, never finishing lower than fourth place.

But Ryan’s club has taken things to another level this season during an unexpected march to the Final Four as a No. 2 seed after going 12-6 in the Big Ten. At one point this season, Wisconsin was 4-5 in Big Ten play. Look at the Badgers now. Incredible.

Here’s a look back at how they got to the Final Four, where a date with red-hot No. 8 Kentucky looms.

[ MORE: Frank Kaminsky, the three-star recruit | Kaminsky’s prep coach talks breakout ]

Best win: There have been some gems, including triumphs over Florida and Virginia in the preseason—both No. 1 NCAA seeds. But let’s go with a 75-62 victory over No. 15 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Feb. 16. Frank Kaminsky carried the Badgers with 25 points and 11 rebounds. The Wolverines cut Wisconsin’s 18-point lead to three, but the Badgers hung on for a fourth win in a row in what would become an eight-game Big Ten winning streak.

“They’re a difficult matchup for anybody they play,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Once we get down like we got down, it’s tough to come back because of their ball-control offense. They make timely shots, they’ve got a great plan – and really played a high-IQ game today.”

Worst loss: From Jan. 14-Feb. 1, Wisconsin went 1-5 after a 16-0 start. The low point in that six-game slump was the 65-56 home loss to Northwestern, which never had won in the Kohl Center—opened in January 1998. In fact, the last time the Wildcats left Madison with a victory was the 1995-96 season, when the Badgers played in their iconic UW Field House. But NU ended a run of 13 defeats in a row at Wisconsin with this stunner, casting even more doubt on the then-No. 14 Badgers. Was that sensational 16-0 start a mirage?

“I don’t even know what to say,” said guard Ben Brust, who led the Badgers with 21 points. “We got a lot of wide-open looks, but to throw the ball into the post and get a wide-open kick-out only to get an air ball is ridiculous. It’s just unacceptable.”

High point: After a 95-79 rout of No. 23 Illinois on Jan. 8, the Badgers improved to 16-0. It was the best start in school history. Soon thereafter, Wisconsin moved to No. 3 in the nation.

“I’d have gone home, maybe had a beverage, eaten something and gone to bed and it would never be brought up until you just brought it up,” Bo Ryan told a reporter after the game.

“For the players, what they’ve accomplished … I’m certainly proud of them,” he added. “But you know, you start thinking about that too much, it can go the other way in a hurry.”

Low point: After that 16-0 start, Wisconsin went into the tank by losing five of six games. In that stretch, the Badgers lost three home games in succession, falling to Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State. The last time Wisconsin pulled off that dubious home hat trick? The 1997-98 season. Wisconsin’s lone win in its 1-5 stretch came at lowly Purdue, as the Badgers also lost at Indiana and at Minnesota. When the Badgers went to bed on Feb. 1, they were 4-5 in the Big Ten.

Key player: It has to be Frank Kaminsky. The 7-0 junior broke into the national consciousness with a school single-game record 43-point effort in a 103-85 win over North Dakota on Nov. 19 that showed the full offensive fury of this Wisconsin club. And Kaminsky led the way, hitting 16-of-18 shots, all six of his three-pointers and five-of-six from the charity stripe to help the Badgers eclipse the century mark for the first time since December 1995. For perspective, Kaminsky entered this game with 133 career points.

“It’s a great feeling,” Kaminsky said. “As a basketball player, you want every shot to go in. When most of them are going in, it’s going to feel great. I can’t really describe it. It’s an awesome feeling. Looking back on the game now and being able to see the stats and everything, it was an awesome game.”

Kaminsky continued to roll through the season as the Badgers’ unlikely hero, becoming a full-blown star in Wisconsin’s Elite Eight triumph vs. Arizona by scoring 28 points with 11 rebounds. As a sophomore, he averaged 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds. This season, Kaminsky is averaging 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. There was no more improved Big Ten player. And none more key to Wisconsin’s run this season to its first Final Four since 2000.

Key number: 7.8, points per game averaged by Nigel Hayes, one of the biggest surprise players in the Big Ten this season. The hype surrounding his arrival from Toledo, Ohio, didn’t create a ripple. But Hayes emerged as one of the best freshmen in the nation. How good? The 6-7, 250-pound forward earned Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors, averaging 2.9 rebounds along with his 7.8 points. Hayes is an ultimate X-factor, a guy who can do a bit of everything.

Key moment: There obviously have been a lot. But the comeback 85-77 win vs. No. 7 Oregon in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament will forever have a place in Wisconsin lore. The Badgers trailed by 12 at the half after trailing by 14 late in the opening 20 minutes. No worries, as Wisconsin outscored the Ducks, 48-28, in the second half. A Ben Brust three-pointer with 1:07 left sealed the deal for Wisconsin, which was fueled by a partisan crowd in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center.

“To be able to handle that smack in the face in the first half and come back and deliver one of our own says a lot about this group,” Bo Ryan said.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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