Not exactly the place many Wisconsin fans expected their team to be after coming a handful of shots away from a conference championship. By all accounts, the Badgers had an extremely successful season. From November 27th to January 3rd, the team railed off nine straight wins. Just nine days later, they started another lengthy win streak of eight games.
Ethan Happ blossomed into the player that all Grateful Red wanted him to be – a not-yet-fully-developed (but getting there!) Frank Kaminsky. He was the only player in college basketball to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in conference play. Nigel Hayes, while disappointing at times, remained a top-notch player; Bronson Koenig had his fair share of clutch moments. True freshman D’Mitrik Trice even showed instances of greatness; he’ll certainly be a player to watch in the future. Hell, Brevin freakin’ Pritzl had five offensive rebounds against Maryland.
There were devastating losses, sure – Creighton (a true road game) and North Carolina (in Maui) were missed opportunities early; Wisconsin lost out on true top-tier legitimacy with a loss to Purdue, and of course, lost much of its mid-tier credentials with five straight losses to unranked teams continuing through February. But for another season – continuing a streak longer than some current Wisconsin student’s lives – they finished top-four in the conference. Disappointment is relative; nonetheless, it’s a damn privilege to be a Wisconsin Badger fan.
And yet, Bucky will get Virginia Tech in the first round – a game that, according to FiveThirtyEight, they have a 79% chance of winning – before (almost for sure, pending jaw-dropping history) facing behemoth Villanova, defending champion and number-one overall seed. It almost seems unfair – of the seven Big Ten teams in the tournament, Wisconsin is seeded ahead of only Michigan State, tied with Northwestern, and below Minnesota and Maryland, two teams they were a combined 3-0 against and finished above in the conference standings (not to mention, made it farther in the conference tournament). There’s a good chance that Wisconsin might not extend its nation-leading three-year Sweet 16 streak.
And you know what? That’s ok.
Because – as is every year – there’s a lot more to March Madness than your favorite team. Open up your eyes – it’s March, the Madness is here, and if you’re only in it to win it – for either your bracket or your team – you’re not appreciating the best moment in the yearly sports cycle.
(Shut it, Super Bowl. You’re cool for a late afternoon, then all people care about is the commercials.)
For example, appreciate the fact that Northwestern, a team that has literally never made the NCAA Tournament, will be an 8-seed; although they’ll have to get through a decent Vanderbilt team and No. 1 Gonzaga to make it to a Sweet 16, they’re dancing. That’s significant – ask any Northwestern fan you know – as the team set program records across the board, including most wins in a season (23) and most Big Ten wins in a season (10) en route to an at-large bid. Their tied-fifth place finish in the conference was just the second time they’ve finished above seventh in the last 48 years.
Don’t want to invest in a team that’s not your own? Fine. How about some of the matchups you might get to watch? Anyone who calls themselves a fan of the game should be on the edge of their seats, dropping everything they can to see first round matchups like Miami-Michigan State, Dayton-Wichita State, or Michigan-Oklahoma State. No? The second round could potentially see matchups like Kansas-Michigan State, Wisconsin-Villanova, Florida-Virginia, Oregon-Creighton, and more. If we got chalk – which may seem boring – that’ll mean we get to watch Villanova-Duke, Gonzaga-Arizona, North Carolina-Kentucky, and Kansas-Louisville. Who in their right mind wouldn’t pay good money to see any of those?
But let’s really go out on a limb – what if you’re not even a fan of the sport, but just want to fit in – you’re competing in your office pool to seem cool, or filling out a bracket to beat the rest of your family. Well, take solace in this – the field this year is historically weak, and anyways, the odds of a correct bracket, according to the NCAA, are 1 in 9.2 quintillion. No, quintillion is not a fake number – it’s real, just like your chances of winning if you literally picked teams based on their color or mascot.
And that’s the fun of March. Sure, for a couple tens of thousands of fans, an Elite Eight, Final Four, or even championship run will be in the mix. But for the rest of us, we get to watch an incredible few weeks of the most competitive college sports environment in the world. Inevitably, a team seeded 10 or above will make a deep run. Cinderella will don the slipper and dart into the Sweet 16. Inevitably, a player not-oft talked about will carry his team deep as well, and maybe his future career, too. And inevitably, there will be overtime. There will be buzzer beaters. There will be monster dunks, career-defining moments, ultimate fanship, devotion, emotion, surprise, suspense, charisma, aggression, and much, much more.
It’s March. And even if your team loses in the first round, you’re wise to keep watching.
(And hey, Virginia Tech. Just know that we’re not happy – we’ll be showing up prepared.)