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Ghosts of NCAA past loom over Wildcats-Badgers matchup

Anthony Gimino Avatar
December 7, 2023
Wisconsin Badgers forward Sam Dekker (15) speaks with forward Frank Kaminsky (44) against Arizona during the second half in the West Regional final of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

The Wisconsin Badgers.

The &^%@#! Wisconsin Badgers.

Some of y’all are still triggered and traumatized by those two words, hearts still broken, dreams still haunted, curse words still flying out of your mouths even whenever somebody merely whisper “Wisconsin Badgers.”

Here’s two more triggering words: Frank Kaminsky.

And three more: Sam (bleeping) Dekker.

None of this has anything to do with what will happen on the court Saturday when No. 1 Arizona plays No. 23 Wisconsin at McKale Center. That’s a great matchup all by its lonesome. Two balanced teams on far opposite ends of the tempo charts. Will be fascinating.

But, for Arizona Wildcats basketball fans, thoughts are drifting back to 2014 and 2015 and then pushing forward to getting some payback for those back-to-back gut punches in the Elite Eight as the Badgers knocked out two of Sean Miller’s best teams.

“I don’t know much beyond that,” third-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said Thursday at his weekly press conference.

“But I know there is a significance. A lot of Arizona fans feel passionate about it, and I’m sure a lot of Wisconsin fans feel passionate about it. I think that’s great. I mean, it has zero impact on this game, but maybe it’s fun for the fans to reminisce a little bit and kind of get their juices going.”

Well, those are two words I would not have used to describe the Wildcats-Badgers history: “Reminisce” and “fun.”

But let’s soberly recall, not reminisce about, the villainous Badgers and what they did in 2014 and 2015.

We’ll start with the 7-foot center, Kaminsky.

Nobody on Arizona could guard him. He had a combined 57 points and 17 rebounds in two regional final games, using his inside-outside skills to make 20 of 40 shots from the field, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range.

In the Badgers’ 64-63 overtime victory in 2014, Kaminsky scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds while Arizona fans lamented the absence of injured Brandon Ashley. We all figured Ashley’s size and mobility would have been the defensive counterpoint had he been healthy and the Wildcats would have strolled to the Final Four.

Alas, even with Ashley available in 2015, it didn’t matter.

Arizona had no answer for Kaminsky across two seasons, whether it was Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Aaron Gordon or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on him.

“I don’t really care who is guarding me at this point,” Kaminksy said after the 2015 game.

Good for you, Frank.

And then there was 6-9 forward Sam Dekker.

Dekker’s daggers led the way for one of the most epic 3-point barrages in tournament history. Wisconsin made 10 3-pointers in the second half of an 85-78 victory in 2015.

He nailed a 3-pointer with less than two minutes left to extend the lead to eight and then hit another with 17.6 seconds to go with the Badgers up five. After the last one, Miller just smiled as if to say, “What can you do?” and “Can you freakin’ believe this?!”

Dekker made 5 of 6 3-pointers en route to a career-high 27 points, and what really sucks for Arizona fans is that he was a 33.1 percent 3-point shooter for the season. This marked the only time in his three college seasons that he made more than four 3-pointers in a game.

Good for you, Sam.

There is a point to putting you through all this, and it’s that payback and glory means that much more when you’ve been through the pain. (As a Red Sox fan since 1975, I know first-hand that this is true.)

That’s the pain context for Saturday’s game, even if it has nothing to do with the current group of players and coaches.

But there actually might be more recent history that matters.

Arizona senior Caleb Love was a freshman at North Carolina when the ninth-seeded Badgers crushed the No. 8-seeded Tar Heels 85-62 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I respect them, but they do leave a bad taste in my mouth because they beat us by 20 in the NCAA Tournament,” Love said. “So, obviously, this game is important not only for me but for Arizona basketball.”

He’s got that right.

Follow Anthony Gimino on X

Top photo: Wisconsin Badgers forward Sam Dekker (15) speaks with forward Frank Kaminsky (44) against Arizona during the second half in the West Regional final of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

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