Disclaimer- This is all my opinion. Granted I live in the middle of Wisconsin and have been a Badger fan my entire life, but I can't necessarily speak for the entire fan base.
I'm probably the wrong person to write this. I'm 23 years old. The Badgers have been good at basketball and football basically my whole life. The first football game I remember watching start to finish was the 1999 Rose Bowl. Dick Bennett was the basketball coach when I became conscious of college basketball. I didn't understand at the time what a big deal it was when they made it to the 2000 Final Four, Yet these very things are why I might just be the perfect person to write a piece like this.
I take the Badgers being good for granted. In Bo Ryan's 14 seasons the Badgers have really only been on the bubble once in 2008, and they won a tournament game that year at that. They've missed a bowl game one year in my conscious memory, and have played in 5 Rose Bowls in that same time period. That's just it though. The Badgers have only ever been good. Sure winning the Big Ten is great, whether it is in football or basketball, but a national championship? No, never that. Sure in 2011 the football team was being able to defend desperation passes away from playing for a national title, but even that team (with RUSSELL FREAKING WILSON), lost in the Rose Bowl. There isn't any shame in that, but national respect as an athletic program is hard to come by, especially with the perception of the Big Ten in football up until very recently. I was happy with being good, but not great at these sports. "Let Ohio State be great at football. Let Michigan State be a basketball blue blood. I'm happy Wisconsin is competitive in the sports most people pay attention to". I feel that this is true of most Badger fans. Whether it is coming from the older fans that were just happy we are no longer an also ran (if even that some years), or younger fans like me who enjoy that the team we've grown up watching is at least somewhat relevant year in and year out in the revenue sports.
Then the Final Four happened last year. It wasn't like the 2000 Final Four, where a gritty team played great basketball two weekends in a row to battle their way there (not unlike MSU this year). That was a two seed who beat who they were supposed to beat, then beat the number one seed in a coin flip game to win the regional final. A team that lost one regular season game outside of a weird stretch they had lost 5 of 6 in January (Badger fans collectively call this The Swoon). That team belonged in the Final Four. They had the resume, they had the talent. They were no Cinderella. Yet even then, something wasn't quite right. We were still Wisconsin. The glass ceiling had been reached. Kentucky might have been an 8 seed, but they were talented. They were the blueblood, the program that plays for national championships.
This season that ceiling has been shattered. Wisconsin was a marked team. Started the season ranked number 3 in the nation, the prohibitive favorites to win the Big Ten. Uncharted territory for Wisconsin basketball indeed. Then something weird happened. This team met all expectations. This didn't turn into the 2006-2007 team that had a potentially great tournament run derailed by Brian Butch hurting his elbow. Sam Dekker's ankle healed, and Bronson Koenig rose to the occasion with Traevon Jackson breaking his foot. They swept the regular season and tournament conference titles, just like they were expected to. Like they were supposed to. Because this Wisconsin team wasn't like other Wisconsin teams. They aren't just good, they are great. This team isn't some scrappy group of overachievers that has defined Wisconsin athletics the last 2 decades. They are an undeniably talented team, and everyone knew that before the season even started. Sure, Frank Kaminsky might not have been a hugely sought recruit, but he was one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win national player of the year coming into this season.
Or had the ceiling been shattered? Wisconsin wasn't even favored to make it back to the Final Four against Arizona. Arizona was just too talented, Wisconsin had struggled with an up and down UNC team, Arizona was just too good. After the game, well, Kentucky. Good luck. You aren't winning a national title this year. Then the unthinkable happened, Wisconsin dominated Kentucky on the glass and controlled huge stretches of the game. 38-1. An upset yours truly called on multiple occasions last week.
Now I really do feel the perception has changed with the Kentucky game. I'm kind of surprised how many analysts have applauded Wisconsin for winning that game, instead of criticizing Kentucky for losing it. That was what I expected. Wisconsin just doesn't beat great teams, great teams just happen to lose to Wisconsin occasionally (supposedly). Yeah, a number 1 ranked OSU can lose at Camp Randall every now and then, but it takes a Herculean effort, and home field advantage doesn't hurt. No, Wisconsin traded punches with what was being hailed as maybe the most talented college basketball team ever. Not only that, but no one is stunned. Maybe they didn't think Kentucky would lose, but most thought Wisconsin was certainly capable.
I thought before Saturday's game that if we could just beat Kentucky, the championship game wouldn't matter. If we could be the ones that ruined Kentucky's perfect season, while avenging last year's Final Four, whatever happened tonight would just be gravy, even if it was a 15 point loss. I was wrong. Not just for me personally, but most of my friends as well. This season, this team, this weekend has changed that. Just getting to the national stage, be it the Final Four or the Rose Bowl, that isn't quite enough. Whatever happens tonight, this season will have been a great run. This run (last year included), has shown everyone (myself included) something though. Wisconsin can complete at the highest level of sports, and it doesn't have to be a band of scrappy overachievers or a stud transfer quarterback that gets us there. The Wisconsin Badgers can win just being the Wisconsin Badgers. It's still unrealistic to expect a team like this happens every year, but when they do, there's nothing crazy with believing that you very well could hear this from Matt LePay...
Your Wisconsin Badgers are the 2015 National Champions.
I can only hope I get to type that at least one more time.