Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The top four men's college basketball teams for 2013-14 will converge at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, this weekend, and only a very small percentage of people could have even imagined this quartet being the last ones standing.
Sure, having top-ranked Florida in the mix was a no-brainer, and maybe someone you know got lucky with taking a chance on the Big Blue from Kentucky making the cut. Heck, even staunch Connecticut fans and alumni thought it was a stretch to go with their heart and not with their head when filling out their brackets.
However, what makes those teams believable as potential national champions this time around is their recent histories in the tournament. The Wildcats, champions just two years ago over Kansas, are second only to UCLA in all-time titles with eight, while UConn took home the trophy a year earlier - their third all-time - with a 53-41 decision against upstart Butler. Florida is seeking to notch its third championship in less than a decade and by many estimates have the inside track, leaving that other team standing in the way.
Honestly, when you think about recent powerhouse programs, UConn, Florida and Kentucky seem to be on the tip of everyone's tongues, but by no means is that the case for the Wisconsin Badgers. In the last two decades, those first three schools mentioned have a combined eight rings, more than enough glittering prizes to convince a betting man that they have the best shot at cutting down the nets once again.
So where do the Badgers fit into all of this?
You have to dig really deep into the archives to find the lone NCAA championship registered by Wisconsin, a 39-34 decision against Washington State back in 1941 in just the third NCAA Tournament ever held. It probably wasn't long after they traded up from using peach baskets (all right, that was a cheap shot). Then again, basketball was never a top priority in Madison.
In fact, beyond that championship season, Wisconsin appeared in the tourney just once more (1947) over the next five decades and has only recently been a regular invite to The Dance.
Fast forward to 2001 and the arrival of Bo Ryan as head coach. Now in his 13th year with the Badgers, Ryan has the program back in the Final Four for the third time in history, the first since 2000. The Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year for 2013, Ryan has never had a losing season with Wisconsin, with this being the Badgers' third 30-win campaign under his direction.
Ryan isn't much of a household name, but he has a .728 winning percentage during his current stint in Madison and recently eclipsed the 700-win total for his career, one that includes four national titles at the Division III level with Wisconsin-Platteville.
Should championship wins over the likes of Franklin & Marshall, Manchester University Hope, and Hampden-Sydney College cause the other three remaining teams in this title race to step back and bow down in worship ... not at all. But at least Ryan has created a culture of winning basketball whenever he's been on the sidelines.
Ranked as high as third in the country this season, the Badgers began the campaign on a 16-game win streak, with one of the victories coming against Florida (59-53) during the first week of competition.
The Badgers hit a bit of a dry spell with three straight conference defeats and five setbacks in a span of six outings in January, but in the end they played well enough to earn a spot in the tournament field.
Picked as the No. 2 seed in the West Region, perhaps Wisconsin was destined to make it at least this far, but Ryan made it clear early on that being a favorite and playing close to home in the regional rounds of the tournament would not change his way of thinking or how he prepares the team.
Ryan noted his team "won't hear it from me that we're a two (seed). They won't hear it from me that we're playing a 15 (seed). They won't hear it from me that we're in Milwaukee. My guys are pretty smart. I think they know where we're going. I think they know what's at stake."
Those comments were made just before Ryan and the Badgers crushed American in the most lopsided NCAA Tournament victory in school history, 75-35, during second-round action at the Bradley Center just down the road in Milwaukee.
The challenge became a bit more difficult two days later when Wisconsin squeezed out an 85-77 decision versus Oregon before moving on and dominating Baylor (69-52) with a defensive effort that was reminiscent of when the Badgers were revered as one of the top scoring defenses in the nation.
Last weekend, the top two seeds in the region met up at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., and Wisconsin nipped Arizona in a 64-63 overtime thriller for the right to advance to Arlington. Frank Kaminsky (14.1 points per game) led the way with a double-double consisting of 28 points and 11 rebounds, but outside the Big Ten he is largely an unknown commodity. The same can pretty much be said for Ben Brust (12.8 ppg), Sam Dekker (12.4 ppg) and Traevon Jackson (10.7 ppg).
While their efforts may not be highlight-worthy, or earn them the cover of a video game, national magazine or cereal box, the Badgers play the game the right way and have formed a very strong bond between a group of five players (Josh Gasser also starts, averaging 8.9 ppg) who have started every game together and the importance of that familiarity can't be overstated.
"We're definitely proud of how far we've come, the obstacles we've overcome this year," Jackson said. "It's been a great ride. We had expectations from the beginning of the season back in the summertime. It's still not done yet. We're excited we made the Final Four. We're excited to go down and have an opportunity. But to complete the assignment is still at hand."