The sports world is dormant right now, and that’s brutal for all sports fans. What I am missing the most is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it is March Sadness this year. With nothing new to watch, I have been watching classic March Madness games, and I came up with the idea for this series called “The Runners-Up,” where I take a deeper look into the teams that came up just short.
This series will highlight some of the best teams in the last 20 years that made it to the National Championship game but lost. A different bounce here or there and these teams may have gone down in history, but instead they had to settle for the silver medal. This series serves to give some of those teams — which may have been forgotten — the recognition they deserve. I already have a few ideas in mind, but if anyone has any tournament runners-up they would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I hope you enjoy!
In 2014, the Wisconsin Badgers made a surprising run to the Final Four, where they were eliminated by Kentucky. The next season, they entered with high expectations as the No. 3 team in the country, and the only way they could outshine the previous season was by making it to their first title game since their win in 1941. And that’s exactly what they did.
The only logical place to start when discussing the 2015 Wisconsin basketball team is with Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky was a different beast that season, and he took home a lot of hardware as a result. He was the unanimous National College Player of the year that season, averaging 18.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game as the Badgers made a run to the championship. He was also a unanimous All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year, among other honors.
Kaminsky was a very unique player who just kind of took the country by storm as a senior in 2015. He was 7 feet tall and dominant in the paint, but he could also spread the floor by shooting over 41% from deep. He could also put the ball on the ground, dribble through traffic and either create his own shot or find an open teammate. He could really do it all, which made him a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
But while the 2015 Badgers could be classified as Kaminsky and Co., they didn’t get to the championship just because of him. There was also Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig who came up big throughout the season, specifically in the NCAA Tournament.
Prior to the tournament though, this team was already pretty special. They stood out among a talented Big Ten field that sent seven teams to the tournament, two of which made the Final Four. The Badgers went 16-2 in the Big Ten and won both the regular season and the tournament title. In the tournament championship against Michigan State (who also made a run to the Final Four that season), Wisconsin fell behind late and had to battle down 11 to tie the game and send it into overtime, where they won 80-69 to secure a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Badgers were the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, where they faced some really good teams. In fact, after their first round win against Coastal Carolina, they didn’t win another game by more (or less actually) than seven points. They beat Oregon, then No. 15 North Carolina and then finally No. 5 Arizona, all in tough games, to make it back to the Final Four for the second year in a row.
This Wisconsin team is best known for eliminating the nearly-undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four. If not for Wisconsin, that Kentucky team — which was 38-0 at the time — may have become the first undefeated team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers and would certainly be in the discussion for the best college basketball team of all time. But Wisconsin ruined all that with a huge 71-64 win in the Final Four, a dose of revenge for the previous season’s result on the same stage.
That Kentucky team was ranked No. 1 in the country for the entire season. It had a stacked lineup of Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, all of whom went in the first 13 picks of that year’s NBA Draft.
But Kaminsky matched up well with Towns, and the Badgers fought the Wildcats relentlessly throughout what was one of the best games of the decade. It was also about as big of an upset as a one seed beating another one seed could be.
Wisconsin became the only team to defeat that Kentucky squad that seemed destined for the title. But instead, Wisconsin went onto the championship to square off with Duke, who was responsible for one of the only three losses on the Badgers’ record that season.
Wisconsin actually played really well in the championship. Kaminsky neutralized Duke’s biggest scoring threat, Jahlil Okafor, and turned in a 21-point performance, but Duke’s freshman guards, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen, stepped up with huge games to lead the Blue Devils to a 68-63 win. It marked Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth title as the head coach of Duke.
However, when most people think of the 2015 tournament, they don’t think of the final; they think of the semi-final where Wisconsin shocked the country by beating Kentucky. This Wisconsin team will always go down in history for knocking off the giant that Kentucky was that season.
The Badgers were the people’s champion and an extremely likeable team that was easy to root for. Kaminsky and Dekker were a lot of fun to watch in that tournament. Finishing at 36-4, this team earns the next distinguished “Runners-Up” spot.
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